On the Road- Perspectives on hockey scouting Pt. 2: Player evaluation 101

Welcome back to another segment of “On the Road” where we talk about hockey scouting and the process for lack of a better term to describe evaluating talent, whether it be for the NHL or lower levels. We actually thought about breaking this up into two parts, but the reality is- what goes into evaluating hockey players doesn’t fit neatly into a small box, so here’s about 4k of words worth of material to chew on. If you see that and say, no thanks- we understand. But for those with a genuine interest in some of the things that go into assessments of future NHL talent, we’re glad you’re here.

Truth in lending- your TSP founder is not an NHL scout, but has years of experience as a hockey evaluator with the Chicago Steel (USHL), Red Line Report (independent service) and the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL beyond 17 years as the New England Hockey Journal’s senior NHL draft and prospects analyst. What is discussed in these posts is just one person’s view based on knowledge and experiences- this is not meant to be the first and last word, and is designed to share a POV as opposed to providing a definitive “how-to” or roadmap. Everyone has their own methods and if there was any definitive one way to do it, we would see the NHL draft play out the way everyone else predicted it year after year.

Today’s post addresses the nuts and bolts of player evaluation from the perspective of several scouts including the writer’s. By no means will we touch on every critical element or subject, but this is designed to provide food for thought and for those who have no background in it, provide a baseline of information that we hope will be helpful in your own efforts, whether you’re watching the Boston Bruins or your favorite NHL club, or the AHL, junior or even your favorite high school or child’s minor hockey. Obviously, there is a huge gulf between the various levels, but when it comes to evaluating players and identifying potential, there are some key elements scouts are looking for, and those elements tend to evolve over the years.

For example, a decade ago, bigger was often better…defensemen and forwards with great height and physical attributes were highly sought-after and in 2017, they still are for the most part, but with a couple of important caveats- we’ll get into those further down.

So, thanks for reading and again- we’re interested in your questions, thoughts and views. If there are some specific topics you would like to see touched on, let us know and we’ll see what we can do.

Focus on the player(s)…the game is secondary

Scouts see a lot of games, and while an up-tempo, free-flowing contest that features a lot of transitions and up-and-down play is almost always a welcome sight, the larger game as a whole is not a talent evaluator’s focus. Sure, there are systems and other factors that can influence the overall read on a player you’re looking at on any given night, but scouting begins with the fundamentals and asking a basic question that may or may not be answered with your first viewing: can the kid play?

For most, it begins with a cursory look at the player’s vitals to get a sense of his height, length, body type…is he tall and lean? Short and skinny? Medium-sized but stocky? And there are many other permutations, but especially when you are dealing with teenagers, you typically go into it believing that there is going to be significant physical maturation along the way, so at the first look, you’re getting your baseline assessment of what the kid is, and from there, you’ll spend the majority of your time trying to figure out much less what the player is today and more what he could be. This is important, because there are some kids who will hit their physical maturation process earlier, while others will see late growth spurts or struggle with putting on mass…you have to put an effort into maintaining a balance in your perspective and try to determine how much room is on a particular player’s frame to add mass and muscle, for example- not everyone has that room to grow, and therefore, that gets factored in.

One of the pitfalls that can be easy to get trapped in is becoming enamored with the big, powerful kid who has his way with play at an earlier age because he’s ahead of the development curve. However, the critical question as you move on during the season and beyond is asking yourself if his game is progressing and development continuing on an upward trend, or whether his peers are narrowing the gap and growing their games while the early-emerging talent’s advantage evaporates. One example of this, and there are many, is 2011 Columbus draft choice Seth Ambroz. Back in 2008, the 15-year-old Minnesotan was a dominant force in the USA Select 15s and generated a lot of early buzz because he was so much ahead of his peers physically. However, as the time clicked towards his NHL draft year, there were whispers that he wasn’t working as hard as he should on his game in the summers, and by the time the draft rolled around in his home state- he slid down to the fifth round and has become more of a footnote. This is not to pick on Ambroz, but to merely point out that where the physical attributes might have been viewed a certain way, the NHL is evolving into a state where smaller players who are intelligent, skilled and driven are welcome additions to organizations that might have not given them the benefit of the doubt 10 years or so ago.

Start with the extreme close up, then work out from there

Assessing future pro/NHL players really starts with attempting to answer the question about whether they can play, and that begins with the talent. Obviously, there are far more people in the world who *want* to play in the NHL, but simply don’t have the ability to get there. The hardest-working player in the world can’t get there if he doesn’t possess the requisite of talent and hockey skills to make it, and so the scout obviously has to start there.

Skating. It is THE foundation of the game of hockey, period. Talk to NHL teams these days and it’s more critical than ever, because if you can’t get there to make plays, you’re behind. And if you’re behind as a player, then there’s a good chance your team is behind on the scoreboard. Average skaters (let’s face it- there just aren’t many below-average types in the big league these days) can get by as long as their feet are mitigated by exceptional ability in other areas, but scouts have to spend due diligence on the skating and mechanics. There’s a lot to it, and it can be overwhelming if you’re seeing a player just one time, which leads to a recurring theme throughout this post- the more viewings on players, the better.

From this perspective, you start with an extreme closeup on the feet and hands…the skating and the puck skills. What does the stride look like? Is it fluid and effortless or choppy? Is it long and powerful or short and uneven? How’s the balance and edgework? You might recall NESN analyst Billy Jaffe recently pointing out Brad Marchand’s sublime edges in a Boston Bruins win over Pittsburgh. The way he leans to where he’s nearly horizontal and cuts the ice to make sharp-angle turns to shake defenders is just one of many things that make him a top NHL scorer. It doesn’t stop there. One NHL scout even talked about the importance of mobility not just in defenders but in forwards as well.

Good knee-bend and hip-drop- that’s where you get mobile and powerful skaters. As one NHL scout pointed out- if you want to see knee-bend and hip-drop defined, look at 2013 1st overall pick Nathan MacKinnon. How’s the player’s speed in the open ice? Even more important- how quickly does he get up to speed- how are his first few steps/initial burst? The more explosive and dynamic the better; quick acceleration and agility is the name of the game in the modern NHL, because it’s not about breakaways and blowing by defenders in open ice as much as it is about puck possession in the offensive zone and winning footraces to loose pucks. If you’ve got slow feet, you’re not going to win many of those races, even if your high hockey IQ gives you an edge in anticipating where the puck is going. This is why players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin are who they are- they not only are brilliant skaters with elite hockey skills, but they have the vision/hockey sense and work ethic to go with it. They are the complete package and therefore, deserve their status as generational talents. Most everyone else, however, has shortcomings in their game that require work and effort. This is why we shouldn’t throw terms like “generational talent” around like Jimmy John’s day-old bread…that term should be reserved for only a select few players in the world, period- you sure as heck don’t get one in every draft year.

Skating goes so far beyond the pure speed because most scoring isn’t happening as much in a straight-line these days but is more about east-west movement and you have to be able to defend laterally and angle guys away from the puck. That mobility is so important these days- not just on offense but defense as well- you have to watch to see if someone has a forward-lean versus being able to sit back in their hips, which facilitates the crisp, flawless pivots and transitions both in defending the play coming at you, but in going back to retrieve the puck as well. More mechanics that scouts have to look at: Is the skater fluid and open or is he knock-kneed? Is he a wide track-based skater? If so, does it hinder him? A guy can look awkward, but if he’s always getting to those spots and loose pucks and making plays, then he could be the rare case where the flawed mechanics work. For most, however, it’s something you have to really focus on and one viewing’s not going to cut it.

So, in starting with the skating, you can then progress to the skill and ability to make plays when the puck is on a player’s stick. Some guys skate beautifully, but aren’t as fast when handling the puck. Others move faster with the puck than they seem to without it. But regardless, you’ve got to start looking not only at their deftness in handling the biscuit at speed but in how effective they are at making passes- in stride at speed and on target so the recipient doesn’t have to slow or break stride is usually ideal- hockey is about time and space…pace and speed drives and influences said time and space. There’s a time to pull up and slow it down, but more often than not- making clean zone entries with consistency happen because the offensive team’s transition game is faster than the defenders can set up to disrupt movement through the skating lanes. Your speed doesn’t do you much good if you aren’t able to carry the puck with pace and then headman it to your teammate who can break a static setup at the defensive blue line.

And then, of course, there is the shot.

The objective in hockey is to score more goals than the other team. So, it stands to reason that your finishers are precious commodity. Duh. So, when evaluating a player, getting a sense of his shot is a priority. How much velocity does the shot have? Is it heavy? How quick is the release? Can he get it off on either foot? How well does he shoot in traffic when a defender is pressuring him? Does he hide the release point from the goalie without dipping the shoulder, sliding hands on the stick or moving his head (or other physical tells) to telegraph that the shot is coming so the goalie gets that extra split second to prepare. These days, goaltenders are so athletic and so smart in terms of how they read the play and sense where a shot is coming from that the natural scorers earn that reputation because goalies can’t consistently make saves against them. That has everything to do with the release.

We were recently in a USHL city to catch a game and afterwards, had dinner with a former pro hockey goalie who had faced several of the NHL’s top shooters- if not in game action then during exhibition contests and/or practices. He talked about Ovechkin being able to score at will because of the extreme flex he could put on his stick and the way he held the puck so as the goalie had no idea when and where that puck was going. He said Ovechkin would then just snap the wrist and stick in one blurry motion, and all of the sudden the was there, coming at him like a rocket and unless it hit him, he wasn’t stopping it. He said that no matter how much you thought you were ready for an Ovi shot, the reality was, you were rarely in control- he’s that good.

In talking to one NHL scout recently, he said the following to TSP: “When I go to games, I just try to be drawn to a player naturally before I dial-in on a guy, even if I’m there to see him. Sometimes, you can see it in warmups and you can see something in a player in that setting before the game even begins. I want that natural skill to manifest and I want to see it for myself rather than confirming what I may or may not already know about the player going in.”

Most players out there aren’t Ovechkin…so a scout has a lot of work to do when it comes to evaluating shot mechanics because in many cases players are nowhere close to being finished products in terms of their shot when they are 15, 16 or 17 years old. This is why a kid like Eeli Tolvanen, a Finnish Boston College recruit playing for the “Muskies”- the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL- is so intriguing a prospect for the 2017 NHL draft- he’s not all that big, and while not a dynamic skater (we describe him as being more of an efficient one than explosive), has an NHL-caliber shot, and he’s not yet 18. It comes off his stick in a blur and is hard, heavy and accurate. We’ve seen him hit a small, small space above a goalie’s shoulder in full stride, when the netminder did absolutely everything right, but still had no chance- Star Wars fans can understand how the womprats felt when Luke Skywalker would bullseye them in his T-16 back home. Tolvanen’s ability to score means he won’t be on the draft board long in Chicago. Just think- if he were a little bigger and faster, he’d probably be up there with Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier for top billing- that’s how important a value NHL teams place on pure shooters, and Tolvanen just might be the best sniper in the entire draft. We’ll see.

Now, for the hard part…the wider-angle view

So, the size, the skating and the skills/shot have been addressed and here’s where it becomes even more of a challenge for scouts because now you have to try and measure the immeasurable by looking at the little things- the decisions…creativity…character- just to name a few. The game moves fast, so you’re observing and processing along with the flow of play. Some guys can stand out positively or negatively in just a few plays- you can get a sense at how well a player sees the ice relatively easily just by watching what he does with the puck when he has it. Does he see the open man/passing lane before the window closes? And believe us- the higher you go up in levels, the smaller that window is there…hockey IQ and vision is a critical discriminator to see if a player has the grey matter between his ears to read/process/react without having to think about it. That’s what separates capable players from exceptional ones, and let’s face it- with all of the emphasis on skill development and elite, year-round hockey programs in the 21st century, players are getting more and more capable each day. The things that can’t be coached in them however, are the natural CPU to instinctively make the right plays…the ice water in the veins to be composed under pressure to make a critical save at the precise moment the team needs it most…to see the entirety of the ice surface, go through a series of progressions and then move the puck to the right player to generate a scoring chance…to recognize where you need to be with your body and stick to close up a lane and deny the team the same kind of high-danger opportunity.

One NHL scout talked about the importance of finding players who can make scoring plays to the weak side, as well- he actively looks for it- a right wing who carries the puck down the right side and can make the passing play all the way over to the other side of the ice. That takes vision and skill to do with regularity. The same scout also talked about a simple measure of character and the ability to put the team first in a player when he described a kid who, when his team is in possession of the puck in the offensive zone and cycling, but has been out there a while, will go to the bench for a change that puts fresh legs on the ice and gives his team potentially a better chance to score with a new player- the changing guy is taking himself out of a possible scoring play, but he’s doing it because it gives his team a better chance to win the game. That’s one definition of selflessness right there- watch a game and look for it, so might be surprised out how frequent or infrequently it happens, or who some of the NHL stars you see doing it are.

The bottom line is- there is no textbook for these kinds of attributes, so you gain the ability to assess and evaluate them over repetition and experience, which comes down to the biggest point made in our first post of the series, which is- Go. To. Games!

As this series progresses, we’ll talk about advanced stats and how they absolutely do have a place in player evaluation, but some of the analytics folks I’ve talked to have admitted at times to just looking at the spreadsheets and while there is value in metrics and analytics, just as there is value to the “eye test” you can’t really do the job right by prioritizing one over the other or dismissing one or the other outright. It stands to reason- if the game is evolving, as scouts- we too, must be innovative in our approach and use every tool at our disposal and maintain a growth mindset on emerging trends to find players who can play.

Said another scout- “I’m a believer in pace, and there’s various ways you can do that, either with your IQ or your speed or what have you…but in the modern NHL, you have to play with pace or you’re behind the power curve already.”

As you back out of the close up on the player in order to determine whether he has the foundation to at least have a chance to play at the level you are scouting him for, you want to look at the hockey sense and vision as covered above, but the work ethic and drive is important, too. How much does he move his feet? Is he working across the 200-feet of the ice surface or is the effort skewed to one side or the other? How consistent is the application of effort- do you at least notice him on every shift even if the puck doesn’t end up in the net? How’s his energy? Is he a selfish player- does he put himself ahead of his team by taking bad penalties? How’s the body language…anyone can be fired up if playing on a good team or the team is winning, but on a poor club/if getting blown out, what is he doing out there? Leading by example or letting his emotions get the best of him? Does he quit when things aren’t going well? We can tell you this- players who even look like they might quit are a major red flag for NHL teams and really, any team for that matter. One of the worst hockey equivalents to a scarlet letter a player can carry is that of “quitter.”

And the list goes on.

Basically, if your head is swimming after reading this (or you quit reading after the first 500 or so words and have skipped ahead to the end), you’re only beginning to get a sense of the things scouts look for on any given night. And, you might now understand why you can’t just go to one game, see a player once and declare yourself an expert on said competitor. One game is nowhere near enough, and while you can at least claim that you’ve seen a player, your ability to give the kind of opinion that will drive an informed decision on him one way or another is limited.

Speaking of limited…this post is pushing 4,000+ words and we’ve only touched on the basics. There’s a lot more out there and you’d be amazed at the level of detail some scouts get into. We’re not going to do that here, and we fully recognize that there are a good number of things that go into evaluation that we simply didn’t touch on. There are books out there on the subject, though- Shane Malloy’s The Art of Scouting, published in 2011, is just one, for example. However, there is no definitive right or wrong way to do it, but those teams and scouts with a sustained positive track record at the draft have methods worth studying.

Talent evaluation 101…some final thoughts and what’s next

Everyone brings their own inherent experiences and biases to the mix (we’ll touch on the various biases and how they can positively or not-so-positively influence draft decisions later in the series), and so one might feel passionately about some of the methods they do or do not employ, but there is no tried-and-true right way to do things.

At the end of the day, each team has NHL coaches who have to play the guys the scouts help draft, so the staff also has an obligation  to try and find the right players who can achieve that end and thrive. It’s not just about drafting a player with a lot of skill if he doesn’t have the ability to fit into a team’s scheme and make it work.

One thing we can say, however, is that if a player’s work ethic is a driver in how successful they’ll be (to a large extent), the same is true for scouts. Not everyone is created equal in terms of how much time they spend on their craft, and just like players, there are lazy scouts out there, too. The next post in the series will focus on one aspect of hockey scouting that will often separate the guys who can attend a game and write up a solid report on the players they were there to see versus those who go the extra mile to do research and develop a more accurate picture for their team’s chief scout and GM- the actual decision-makers in the organization.

We’re talking about a player’s body of work, and that is becoming more and more important with the new economics of the NHL and the premium teams are having to place not only on good, talented players who will help them win championships, but who are also good, selfless people who share that organization’s values and will be ambassadors of the brand. Dismiss that importance at your own peril- life isn’t a video game, where you just stack up the sexiest, most skilled players on all four lines and run up scores on rookie or intermediate levels on EA NHL 17.

GMs are called team builders for a reason, and so don’t look at the NHL draft as a “crapshoot”- it isn’t, and that is such a lazy term, even if it has become widely accepted. Is scouting and drafting teenagers hard? You bet it is! Are success rates lower in hockey when compared to a sport like football, where the average drafted player is 22 versus the 18-year-old in hockey who still has significant development ahead? No doubt. But, shooting craps is a game of chance, where the person throwing the dice is beholden to the whims of fate in terms of how those numbers come up.

NHL teams who dedicate the resources to scouting and having exceptional talent evaluators who pound the pavement by talking to coaches, billet families, players, educators and so on to intensify the focus on a player that goes well beyond what he’s doing on the ice aren’t just engaging in a crapshoot, and that’s a fact. There are no guarantees in life and professional sports, but the clubs who go out and leverage due diligence are better positioned to have more draft hits than misses. It’s just one reason why declaring “winners” and “losers” the day after a given draft is such a futile exercise.

Thanks for reading (if you actually got this far), and in the next OTR post, we’ll touch on that body of work and why the teams that take the time to integrate it into the development of their draft list are more likely to succeed than fail.

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