Back in the summer, when we were running our Top 25 Under 25 series, I did not rank Brandon Lisowsky at all. That isn't to say I don't like him as a player, because I do – I love small guys who can rip it. But I didn't see much in the future for him as far as projecting pro-level abilities.
In the voter comments section, this is what I wrote in Lisowsky's profile:
He’s a capable but not great skater. He is just an okay passer and playmaker, not very dynamic in deking around defenses or passing it off to teammates to set them up for scoring chances. He’s also not a dynamic transition guy carrying the puck, nor does he play a strong two-way game. Barring some significant improvements in some of those areas, I think he’ll find even the AHL a bit of a struggle.
Well, since then the Lisowsky has attended Toronto's prospect roster for the Traverse City tournament, attended a bit of their NHL training camp, and been returned to Saskatoon in the WHL and played four games.
If I was going to change my mind on him, I wanted to see some things from him. First, improved physical skills – become faster, more explosive, and stronger on his feet. Second, improved puck handling and playmaking so he could become a more all-around offensive threat generator. Third, become more of a two-way player to contribute defensively.
His problem was that his offense as a whole is carried heavily by his shot, and lacking any other areas of impact on the game he is heavily one dimensional – far moreso than, say, Nick Robertson, who has an even better shot and is less one dimensional and even he struggles to become an NHLer.
So, what have we seen from Lisowsky so far? Has he made any improvements?
Lisowsky entered the camp with relative obscurity, behind Toronto's other top prospects: Minten, Knies, Cowan, Niemelä, and so on. He played in the second and third games, lining up for both in the bottom six but also getting a bit of powerplay time.
In the first game, Lisowsky was pretty quiet. He did have one goal, but it was an empty netter when Toronto was already up 4-1. In the second game he went off, scoring a hat trick against Detroit while being bumped up to play with the likes of Minten and Cowan. They were each different kinds of goals, showing some diversity in his offensive punch. One was a classic Lisowsky snipe:
Another was off a scramble in front, batting home a rebound after Minten caused the initial chaos. The third was off a nice pass from Cowan where he was all alone in front, and he dangled past the helpless goalie. On the one hand, Lisowsky actually led the Leafs and tied for first in the tournament with 4 goals. On the other, he had no assists and in all but one of the goals, they were pretty easy/pretty lucky and cashing in on the work his teammates had done.
The most interesting thing from his play at the tournament, for me, was that Toronto used him on the penalty kill. It hinted at some much needed versatility in how he could contribute to his team's success. I was very curious to see if he would be used on the penalty kill in Saskatoon as well.
Statistically, Lisowsky is off to an okay start. He has 6 goals and 9 points in 6 games, which is a slight improvement on the pace he maintained last year. Obviously, we'd want to see him become an utterly dominant offensive force in the WHL at his age if we wanted to think that it alone is enough to carry him to the NHL.
From what I've seen, Lisowsky does look improved from last season in some ways—he looks a bit faster, he involves himself in the play in some new ways, and he seems more willing and able to handle and distribute the puck rather than just rip it. You can see some of that in how he's scored his goals this year, because they aren't all just snipes. He's gotten into the middle of a scrum to swat home a rebound a couple of times, and he's just been around the net more often when he doesn't have the puck.
That doesn't mean that Lisowsky has taken anything away from the main strength of his game. His biggest weapon is still his shot, and he's using it more than ever – averaging more than 4 shots per game. But the improvements to his overall offensive game do not appear to be that significant so far, more along the margins as it were. That's good, but his offense already wasn't so great that he seemed like an obvious future NHLer.
Where he had bigger room for improvement has been in every other element of play: transitions, defense, forechecking, and so on. I would say he's shown a better ability as a puck thief, using timely stick lifts to pick pockets and come away with the puck. But he hasn't necessarily made huge defensive improvements, and his skating and puck handling aren't at a high enough level to be relied upon to drive transitions.
All this is to say, while Lisowsky appears to have made some improvements I don't think I've seen anything to change my opinion on him. He seems like a lesser version of Nick Robertson, in terms of size, skills and playing style. And if Robertson who is better in pretty much every way struggles to be a regular NHLer, then I would guess that Lisowsky won't even sniff the NHL. I'll keep following him, but unless I see a huge offensive explosion I have him pretty firmly in the "long shots" column.