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What do hockey scouts look for in a player?
Nine traits hockey scouts look for when evaluating players
In this post, we are going to be looking at what real-world scouts and hockey analysts are looking for when they watch players and attempt to project them to the next level.
The first section is the executive summary of common threads, while the second section will be their full answers.
For players, these are 9 key items to work on before that next combine or tryout. For parents and coaches, these are the key items that should be passed along to your players.
What Hockey Scouts Are Looking For
#1 - Creating time and space for themselves and their teammates
In some capacity, all of the scouts we spoke with came back to some version of this. Offense is all about creating time and space, so this is the most valuable thing to scouts.
#2 - Handling pressure, having patience, and still being able to find the next play.
Once on the puck, scouts want to see players that can handle pressure and exhibit patience to find the next play. Puck protection and utilizing playmaking vision are the key elements they are looking for.
On the flip side, avoiding going ‘glass & out’ or throwing pucks away would be something to avoid.
#3 - Players that have a depth of skills and can have option A & also option B
At the higher levels of hockey, it’s very challenging to beat defenders. And if you beat them once, it’s very hard to beat them that way again. In order to have success going up the hockey pyramid, having multiple facets and ways that you can defeat an opponent is critical to sustained success.
We touched on many of these transferable skills in, “Skills that transfer, skills that last”
#4 - Willingness and ability to work off the puck to get open
On the puck play is great and what catches everyone’s eye, but scouts and knowledgeable hockey decision-makers understand that 95%+ of a hockey game is played without the puck.
We did a 3 part series on OZ Puck Support that can help you digger deeper into this.
#5 - Scanning the ice to gather information
Some scouts will isolate a single player to see if they are actively looking around and shoulder-checking or scanning the ice pre-touch. This is a strong foundational skill that coaches and development staff should drill on from the youngest ages.
Strong awareness traits leads to players being able to better process the game speed.
#6 - Take time and space away from opponents / Managing Available Space
If offense is about creating time and space, defense is about the opposite! Taking away time and space from opponents is the critical element.
How does a defender take away space? Are they able to put them in poor spots early and often?
#7 - Retrievals
For defensemen, this is one of those ‘non-negotiables’. Every defenseman has to go back and be able to consistently retrieve the puck and initiate the breakout.
Scouts are also trying to understand an athlete’s character. This can be tough to gauge from the stands, so they’ll use a few methods to get a peak. It might be a call to former coaches and teammates or looking at who an athlete keeps as friends. Here are two more ways:
#8 - Body Language
How does a player carry themselves on the ice and on the bench (Especially after something bad happens to them or a teammate)? Resiliency is a key contributor to skill improvement.
#9 - Accurate Self-Assessment
When talking to a player, a scout is looking to understand a player’s capacity to grow. The starting place for growth is an accurate self-assessment of where they are now and having a plan to grow from that point.
To help, many players + coaches + parents keep a journal for its many benefits.
Full Scout Answers
I look at prospect analysis a lot like financial analysis. There are metrics, there are indicators, there are historical trends, and there is no magic key to figure it all out right away. Every area of the game with any player can be examined on a spectrum, and how those spectra interact with each other and affect the overall result of the player’s impact is the goal for me. The indicators I put the most weight in revolve around the player’s natural pace of play, and how they use speed and skill on the ice to achieve the goals they’re trying to achieve. You can have all the skill in the world, but if you can’t navigate pressure and use your hands to open new passing and shooting lanes, it’s not particularly useful. You can be the fastest skater on the planet, but if you can’t handle the puck, or use it to push and pull the pace you’re playing it, it can be tough to make an offensive impact. With regards to “size”, I’m far less concerned with it, but what I am concerned with is how a player’s size affects their game. If you’re 5’8”, how are you under pressure with a defender all over you? Do you have the strength to resist pressure? Do you have the speed to escape the pressure? Do you have the vision to make a play under duress? If you’re 6’4”, do you use skill or speed to move the puck around opponents and score? Are you using length and reach in tandem with your feet defensively to close gaps and challenge puck carriers? Are you physical for a purpose, or just hitting anything that moves without regard for the flow of play? There’s no easy answer for a specific player type I look for, but I certainly look for players that drive an overall positive impact on the flow of play and ideally do so in ways that I believe push positive results in the NHL. Skill, speed, pace, awareness, manipulation of open space on the ice, and pressure management all need to complement one another in some measurably positive way.
Justin Froese (Twitter) -Scout for the USHL + MJHL
Players who force their opponents to problem solve and put them in uncomfortable situations.
Players who can adapt. Becoming more important to find players who have layers to their game to be malleable. B games matter.
Sam McGilligan (Twitter) - McKeens NHL Draft Scout
The most important thing in my eyes will always be practicality -- whether or not the player can convince me that they have the means for positively contributing to macro play. There needs to be a clear understanding that they understand how high level 5v5 hockey is played. I find 3 commonalities that standout above the rest: how a player layers their tools, how a player maps the ice, and how they manage space (both on and off puck).
Scouting how a player layers their tools together is not just recognizing what a player’s strengths are, but how they conjoin these strengths to build off each other. If a player is terrific at both handling and skating, how often do you see them use their hands to provide options for their feet? Does that player also weaponize their mobility to set up their hands? It demonstrates a high level of understanding and makes it harder for defenders to accurately read the player’s intentions.
Accurately mapping the ice understanding the positioning of all ten skaters, as well why they are positioned the way they are, ends up being the difference between forcing plays through a set defense vs. identifying the weak spots in a defensive structure.
How a player manages space is also vital for breaking down defensive structures. As the puck carrier, does the player understand what parts of the ice are closed and what parts are open? Do they know what segments shift from closed to open (and vice versa) as the defensive structure moves around? Are they able to sense incoming pressure coming to close off their space, and are they able to recognize where the openings are created as a result of this incoming pressure? When away from the puck, does the player slip between defensive gaps to provide options for their teammates? Do their routes demonstrate an understanding towards driving macro play? If not, then it’s hard to properly project how that player will find the time and space necessary to make plays with their toolss.
Josh Bell (Twitter) - Future Considerations Head Video Scout
It all comes down to usage of space.
For offensive players, I want to see them not only use the space available but create it for themselves and their teammates. This might mean a cross-ice pass that opens up a new lane or taking advantage of a gap, driving the middle of the ice and creating space for themselves in the house. That's a big part of it, is the ability to find/create that space in high-danger areas. Do they know when/how to close into the open ice in this area? It's part of the reason I loved Zach Dean last year despite the injured season. He creates space in the house for himself and for his teammates and can do it by driving the net or through a pass. His creativity and lateral movement allow him to create space that wasn't there. It's something Danila Yurov does very well in this draft class.
Defensively, I want to see players take this space away. Do they angle the puck carrier out into the boards and get their stick in the lanes? Are they able to take away passing lanes? Do they ensure that someone didn't sneak behind them? It's where awareness really comes factors in. Keeping your head on a swivel in the d-zone allows you to see where everyone is, get a good read of the space around you, and gives you the opportunity to take away as much space as possible. If you can create space, you create opportunities. If you can take away space, you limit opportunities. It all comes down to how a player utilizes the space that is – or isn't – there.
Josh Tessler (Twitter) - Smaht Scouting’s Director of Scouting
In general, regardless of position, there are many traits that hockey players might struggle with today, but can be improved upon. For example, a prospect can make improvements on their shooting, passing and skating abilities. How players perceive the game and quick decision making is far difficult to improve. In addition, compete level is hard to improve. That is a trait that I value. I want my prospects to have a true desire to win and that means that my prospects need to put pressure on puck carriers no matter the situation.
But, compete level can also be measured in creativity and deception. I want my prospects to try things and occasionally that means that they make a mistake. I want my prospects looking for opportunities in all three zones to rely on body language and deception to create skating/passing/shooting lanes.
When it comes to specific positions, I’m also looking for that center to be defensively responsible. I want the winger finding passing options for their defensemen and center. They need to grab open ice in the slot or in medium danger that will create passing lanes and hopefully spark scoring chances.
When looking at defensemen, I’m looking for defenders who can move the needle in the offensive zone and identify quality passing lanes to ignite scoring chances. Ideally, my defenders are willing to push up in the offensive zone and blindside attackers who are paying attention to their own defensemen and not the opposition. In their own zone, my ideal defenseman implements tight pressure and utilizes an active stick to keep the attack in low danger areas.
Riley Dudar (Twitter) - Scout USHL + Director of Player Development MJHL
Players who scan the ice to get information & players who are able to make plays that extend possession.
Blair Courchene (Twitter) - Scout WHLSaskatoon Blades
What players do after something negative happens, how they respond to a play that doesn’t get made to them… etc
Decision making, creativity in small area under pressure to escape pressure
Ability to manipulate situations to their favor
Jared Brown (Twitter) - Scout for Draft Pro Hockey
These are key things I search for when evaluating a player:
-competitiveness and drive to retrieve pucks back
-problem-solving skills when gaps tighten
And one big one for me is
-ability to string together plays/passes. Does possession prolong or die when the puck gets on his stick
Chris Moulton (Twitter) - Long time WHL Scout/ Dir. of Player Development
Character. Consistency. Compete. Creativity. Leader. Good teammate. Good person. Hockey sense. Good self evaluator. Skating.
Mikael Holm (Twitter) - Swedish Scout
I look a lot at how players act in transition as I think that part of the game is one of the most important aspects of hockey but it is also a way to analyze more of a player's tool set than just their ability in transition.
In offensive transition with the puck I look at how the player adjusts to pressure and how they utilize their teammates (are they totally ignoring them and trying to carry the puck in on their own, are they seeing the routes that their teammates take, are they patient with the puck waiting for teammates to get in position and so on). I also look at how fast the hands are and are the hands are fast for a purpose (are the hands moving fast so they can adjust to the play quicker) or are they fast just because.
In offensive transition without the puck, I look for player’s routes and how they position their feet when they want/receive the puck. How much help are they to their puck-carrying teammates?
In defensive transition, I look at how they apply their forecheck, how they use their stick defensively, and how they apply gap control.
All of these things give me a great understanding of a player and what I learn about a player in transition helps me understand them in other situations too.
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