Erie Otters center Emmett Sproule has found himself receiving some NHL Draft attention.
As a first-round draft pick of an organization that’s recently had some marquee first-rounders, he’s been watched for a while — and he admits that it may have impacted his start in the OHL.
Sproule was the last pick in the first round of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, joining a list of names that includes Taylor Raddysh (2014), Dylan Strome (2013), and Connor McDavid (2012).
Living up to those names, as well as joining a team coming off an OHL championship run, added the burden of expectations on Sproule.
“Last year I thought it did a bit, but this year I got to play my own game and worry about myself and what my own abilities could do out there,” he explained. “All of those players are great players and I respect them all. They’re high-end players in the NHL and going to play in the NHL some day.
“If I stick to my own game, hopefully I’ll get to that level.”
Otters coach Chris Hartsburg said that though the team purposely didn’t want to set expectations, he was aware they were having an impact on Sproule.
“I don’t think we ever placed any emphasis on that,” he said. “I think he did right away at the start of the year. I think being a first-round pick, there’s always expectations – fair or unfair.
“For us we just wanted Emmett to come in and feel comfortable in the league and get accustomed to it. He’s come in and it’s taken some time, but we knew it would take time. It’s a process for him.
“He’s a kid who’s best hockey is still five, six years down the road because he is still maturing, he’s still growing into his body, and he’s still understanding what type of player he’s going to be.”
Sproule is currently tied for fifth in team scoring, with four goals and 12 points in 26 games — projecting to vastly exceed his last year’s totals of five goals and eight assists in 56 games.
The five-foot-10 forward attributes his improvement to putting in effort over the summer and having a year’s worth of OHL experience under his belt.
“I think it’s confidence, second year coming into the league,” he said. “My game, I felt, has improved. I was on the ice three times, almost four times a week, so I think that helped a lot. But I think confidence is the biggest.
“Coming into your first year, you’re a 16-year-old playing against men out there — 20 years old, 19 years old — so that’s obviously a factor.
“Confidence can go low out there; you’re kind of scared of them. In the second year, you’ve seen all the teams, you’ve been in all the rinks. I feel like a year under your belt can really help you in this league.”
His coach said he noticed Sproule’s confidence improving as his rookie season progressed.
“It really started the second half of last year, he started to feel more confident in the league and playing to his strengths, which are skating and holding pucks,” Hartsburg explained.
He creates a lot of turnovers on the forecheck. I’d like to see him want to play with the puck a little bit more, he does have puck skills, he can skate. But certainly his overall confidence and being hard guy to play against, that’s what he’s got to embrace in order to be a successful player.
“For Emmett it’s understanding who he is as a player and playing to those strengths. When he does that he’s really effective for us. Those are the things he needs to focus on on a day-to-day basis to be the player he wants to be.”
Sproule is ranked as a later-round candidate for the 2019 NHL Draft.
He said he appreciates the ranking, but also is using it as motivation to keep climbing.
“Right now it’s just the beginning of the season, so it’s an honour,” Sproule said. “But I have to keep working, keep improving as the season goes on and hopefully I’ll bump up that ranking.”
He said he has areas of his game he knows have to improve.
Sproule also admitted to trying to emulate another successful former OHLer — ex-London Knight and current Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Mitch Marner.
“I try to play like him and watch videos of him. We skate kind of similarly. He likes to create stuff down low, make unbelievable plays down low — I try to emulate that,” he explained. “His willingness to get to the net and set up his teammates is unbelievable and I try to play like him.
“I think my down-low battles need to be stronger. I have to win puck battles down low and move it out. My shot needs to improve a bit, my strength needs to improve a bit. But other than that I think just use my speed, get in the offensive zone and create plays is my strength. I think that I can do that.
Hartsburg said that there are elements of Marner’s game that he would love to see Sproule adopt, but stresses that the young forward needs to find — and refine — his own game.
Develop into his own player.
And not try to live up to another.
“I know Sprouler likes Marner,” Hartsburg said. “I think they’re a little bit different players — Mitch is more of a guy who attacks off the rush. I want Sprouler to do that, no question. I think what Sprouler does do extremely well is forecheck.
“For him, it’s more or less confidence in his abilities to make plays off the rush. Sometimes he settles for putting pucks in areas where guys want to do it, or let them go get it, but I think he has the ability to do a bit more when he gets the puck on the stick.
“It’s attacking the net more, it’s being the guy who wants to score, wants to make plays, and wants to put pucks on net, and go to those areas to try to score goals. I think it’s his overall play in general and just being more consistent, being harder to play against all the time, and really playing to the type of player he is — he’s energetic.
“He brings energy to the team because he creates turnovers, he can force plays, and that’s what he needs to be.”