Back in February, I had readers send in their ideas for a future top 10 article. One of the most intriguing ideas I received was that of "the top 10 skills/traits that scouts look for in a prospect."
I put this one in my back pocket for a later date (a date closer to the entry draft) and have since enlisted the help of some great hockey minds to explore this topic. Kirk Luedeke (B2011DW), Nathan Fournier (WOJH), and Dominic Tiano (2011 OHL DEP), and I have been discussing this very topic for about a month now. We've been debating these traits ad nauseum and I present to you a list, a ranking, of the traits we believe scouts look for in their future NHL players. Now, none of us are professional scouts so don't go taking our word as gospel. Let that serve as your disclaimer. However, I feel all of us have covered junior hockey enough to have a good feel for the types of characteristics that scouts look for.
One other minor disclaimer. I'll let Kirk explain it since he's the goaltender. "One issue [you may] have with the rankings now that I look at them in detail is that they don't factor any of the goalie-specific skills, but five attributes are the exclusive province of skaters." Rather than re-tweaking them, we'll instead say that many of these attributes are "skater" specific. Maybe in the future, we'll make a goaltender list. After all, most people say goaltenders are cut from a different cloth anyway (right Kirk?), so perhaps it only makes sense.
Regardless, I present to you, the list that we've come up with (and it certainly wasn't easy).
10. Two Way Play
With two way play, we're looking at it from two different angles. We're looking at forwards who backcheck hard and make plays defensively, and we're looking at defenseman who can rush the puck, quarterback the powerplay and aid in the generation of offense. Basically, we're looking at players who play both ends of the ice regardless of their on ice position. Dominic Tiano produced a great argument as to why this should be important. "Usually the player that already possesses a strong two way game is closer to playing in the NHL than the player who needs to work on his defensive game," says Tiano. In addition, I would add that a player who shows the willingness to play both ends in junior is the most likely to do this at the NHL level, where it's required. However, Kirk Luedeke argues that there are definitely more important things "because this can be taught to a degree. Hockey sense and a player's natural awareness/feel for the game will determine this effectiveness to a large extent, but good coaching can improve a player who is lacking."
9. Play Without the Puck
Now on first glance, you might be confused as to how this distances itself from the above category. But let me explain. We felt like play without the puck (while it includes two way tendencies, like backchecking for forwards) can involve a number of different things. Tendencies like forechecking, blocking shots, ability to win battles in the corners, and getting themselves in good scoring position (not so much in a knowing where to go, but the hustle to beat defenders to open space). The term hustle would be one that could be closely associated with this. I definitely had this higher than some of the other guys and I admit to putting a lot of emphasis on this when I watch players. During a game, some of the better players are going to be on the ice close to 30 minutes in junior hockey. Of those 30 minutes, just how much time does the player spend with puck on his stick? The things he does without the puck are important for that reason. Call it the little things that make you a successful hockey player. Kirk brings forward a pretty good example as to how this might hurt a player. "guys who play at a lower level and dominate struggle the most at the higher levels with this when they don't always have the puck and have to learn to play more w/o it." In a way, Kirk is definitely right and the evidence of this is how often midget players struggle in their first OHL camp as they get used to not having the puck on their stick 24/7.
Pretty self explanatory. Smaller players have definitely improved their odds in making it to the NHL in this millennium. But there's no denying that a bigger guy with the same skill set is going to get more attention because they have the potential to be harder to contain. On the flip side, how is a 5'9 defenseman going to contain a big monster like Milan Lucic at the NHL level? Interestingly enough, Dominic believes that size is becoming more important for forwards than defenseman. "Believe it or not this is more important for forwards then d, or at least the trend is showing that. Somewhere I have the stats but forwards are getting bigger in the draft and d-men are getting smaller at least in the earlier rounds." Perhaps Kirk has an explanation. "The recent trend of increased head shots is interesting to watch, too. By virtue of being shorter than the larger percentage of players in the league, the smaller guy is going to be at more risk for concussions unless the NHL does something to change things up."
This one was debated heavily. Character for us included many things; passion, drive to succeed, performing under pressure, self confidence, and work in the community. Look no further than the NHL combine, where NHL scouts and management conduct interviews with players to learn more about them and determine what makes them tick. Kirk really sums this up well. "You always hear about certain players lacking in key elements whether it be size or skating or what have you, but they still manage to reach the NHL because of their passion and work ethic. One NHL head scout told me that he's a believer in taking chances of certain players who have the will and determination. "If a kid wants to be a player badly enough, they usually get there," he said." You could certainly include leadership in this category, but we all agreed it deserved it's own category.
6. Skill with the Puck
While this could include many things, we determined it to revolve around poise with the puck, creativity, and the ability to receive passes and stickhandle in traffic. Both Dominic and Kirk believe this to be most important for defenseman. In fact, Kirk went so far as to say that this might be one of the top qualities he'd look for in a defenseman. At the same time, Kirk argues that without strong puck skill, "you can make the argument that you cannot possess goal scoring ability or playmaking ability." I'll take it even one step beyond. A player with creativity and puck skill puts fans in the seats. The idea of having a player on the ice who can go end to end on an electrifying rush , or score a highlight reel goal in the shootout, has to be gravy for NHL owners.
5. Playmaking Ability
While you could argue that this goes hand in hand with the above (puck skill), we looked at it from the angle of creating plays for your linemates. Call it passing ability, or on ice vision, or whatever, it's important because the team who scores the most goals is the one that wins. Nathan says, "the best players have that ability to slow the play down and like a quarterback, go through their reads (options) to make the best possible play." Interestingly enough, we had conflicting opinions as to whether playmakers or goal scorers are more important. Dominic says, "The ability to make everyone else on the ice better provides the greater chance at producing goals then the player that brings just goal scoring ability." Where as Kirk says, "ultimately, a great playmaker's effectiveness and production is directly related to the finishers he has around him. This is not to say skilled passers are a dime-a-dozen- they must have the vision and creativity, plus touch to be considered high-end playmakers, but there's a reason Wayne Gretzky is the "Great One." He was always a threat to finish. Even with the gobs of assists, without the goal scoring element, Gretzky's legend would not have reached its height."
Does the player bring it, night in and night out? Shift in, and shift out? In the NHL, every game matters. If only the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars had won ONE more game this year. You want players who come to play every game like it's their last. I mean, that's not to say that a player won't have a bad game. Nobody is perfect. But it's how that player bounces back. You want to avoid those streaky players who play 10 games like a first line superstar, and the next 10 like a 4th line scrub. Even though we mentioned our lack of attention to specific goaltending attributes, Kirk argues this might be the top quality to look for in a goaltender.
3. Goal Scoring Ability
While people often say...defense wins championships...you can't argue against the fact that you're still going to have to score that one goal each game. There are a ton of players who get drafted or go on to successful professional careers, and can do only one thing really well. Score goals. If you can score, regardless of any other flaws you may have as a prospect, someone will give you a look. Kirk says, "pure scorers must have the hands (release, accuracy), strength (power in shot), sense and creativity to do it consistently. Speed is a bonus, but we're learning that some guys don't need to be blazers to finish, so this attribute is the culmination of other key elements plus that extra little something- maybe it's selfishness- that makes a guy a scorer at the highest level." While Kirk referred to as it selfishness, I think you could argue it's confidence. Goal scorers seem to have that swagger about them. That, "I'll shoot the puck from anywhere on the ice, I don't care," attitude. That being said, the ultimate goal is to find a player who has overall offensive ability. But if we had to choose, we're taking the goal scorer before the playmaker (except Dominic).
2. Hockey Sense
Perhaps one of the hardest traits to scout is also one of the most critical to a player's success at the next level. It comes as no accident that pretty much every trait we've listed previous to hockey sense...also requires a strong hockey IQ to excel at. Kirk says it best. "All the skills in the world won't translate into the pure potential they allow for without the innate feel for the game and ability to see the ice/make instinctive plays. Hockey is all about time and space and hockey sense is what extends the windows for both. Players without the feel for the game cannot react quickly enough to the developing play, fail to see open teammates/better scoring opportunities, are slow to pick up their check, or anticipate the most dangerous scoring chances/where the shot will come from (for goalies). We've seen plenty of players who can skate like the wind or have terrific hands, but without the hockey sense, none of them have ever been top-three or six forwards/stars- if they've made it to the NHL it has been as role players." I actually had this at number one on my list. I think that's because I view it as the one thing you really can't improve on. You either have it or you don't. Skating can be improved. A player's shot can be improved. Hockey sense is something good players are born with. They make quicker decisions than the other players around them and that's what allows them to be successful.
Even though I didn't personally have this at number one, it didn't surprise me to see this finish in first between the four of us. The NHL game is played at such a fast pace today, and you've got to be a good skater to find space and make plays (with and without the puck). Now skating isn't just speed. You can be a good skater without being a blazer (ask Jeff Skinner). It's about balance, agility, acceleration. And while some forwards can get away with this, it's pretty rare to see a defenseman get drafted high with a skating deficiency. "The foundation; the one skill that the entire game revolves around. Poor skaters are becoming more the exception than the rule. While guys like Mike Knuble still have a place in the game, skating-deficient players have to have other attributes in such sizeable quantities to offset the heavy boots," says Kirk.
We actually ended up with a list of 19 traits in total. The ones that failed to make our top 10 were:
Leadership (on and off the ice)
League They're Playing In (e.g. the NCAA versus the MJHL)
Age (those draft overagers, or even a player born in January versus a player born in August)
Team Success (on the ice)
Nationality (e.g. "The Russian factor")
Thanks so much to Kirk, Nate, and Dominic for their active participation in the discussion that took place to create this article. I hope you enjoyed the read and all of us would love to hear your feedback as to what YOU think scouts value.