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What Do NHL Scouts Look For in Potential Pro Hockey Players?
Every amateur hockey player dreams of being “discovered” by a scout. Preferably when the hockey hopeful has just scored a shocking, miraculous goal. However, scouting doesn’t rely on Hollywood-style “luck” when it comes to finding players.
Just like the smartest bettors at online sportsbooks, NHL scouts ignore “hype” and focus on the nitty-gritty of a player’s individual qualities and how well the player bolsters the team’s quality of play.
All pro league scouts have a system, a list of boxes that need to be checked to determine if the player could and would do well as a professional athlete.
These scouting lists vary from sport to sport. For instance, tennis requires mental toughness and an ability to travel almost constantly from time zone to time zone without illness or homesickness issues.
Hockey, on the other hand, requires physical toughness and the “killer instinct,” the ability to focus on the goal at hand while taking beating after beating.
There are hockey players who lose teeth and keep on playing. One pro player had his throat slit on the ice by a skate blade, while others routinely suffer from treacherous attacks from behind (with sticks). It’s not a career choice for the faint of heart.
Here are the qualities that NHL scouts search for in potential players.
(Note: I have referred to players within this article as “he” and “him” since the NHL has, until recently, been a singularly masculine league. However, that may be changing soon as female players such as Manon Rheaume—who played NHL preseason with Tampa Bay—are showing the league they are equal to the task.)
Scouts look for a player who can read the ice, can change tactics midway through a play, and who teammates will look to for guidance in a tight situation. It’s called “taking authority on the ice,” and it’s the type of leadership that can take a player into the pro leagues.
So, you’re a hockey player. If the puck comes your way, yes, you can shoot to score. If you’re defending, you can stay on your man. But can you make the executive decisions? Can you alter your strategy mid-play to take advantage of an open route?
Intuitive decision-making is one of the hallmarks of a professional player, rather than just a standout college or local league player.
If you know what the play is supposed to be, and you execute it skillfully, that’s good. If you can find a better play when the original goes down the toilet, if you never stop thinking and strategizing on the ice, that’s great. It will get you noticed.
Making Plays in Traffic
A player should be able to handle being in a chaotic group and still keep his focus. Most importantly, he should be able to make smart plays in this kind of traffic.
Most players can display solid hockey skills when they are alone, unpressured, and have plenty of time to assess all the options. But that’s not what you’ll face in the big leagues.
Constant pressure, battering that’s more vicious than what you’ll see in college and local play, and players who know their careers are on the line are what an NHL player faces during every second on the game clock.
Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi played with the San Jose Sharks, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Montreal Canadiens, among other NHL teams. Niemi is known for staying calm under pressure and for shaking off unfortunate plays so that he can focus on what’s next.
One player reportedly sings the Frozen song “Let It Go” silently to himself whenever a play goes south. It’s a good reminder to not let the last play weigh you down.
A player who knows where his teammates are, even if he can’t see them, is a valuable player. Passing, shooting, defending; all of these plays are taken to the next level if you know exactly where your help is.
Lacrosse players shout, “Here’s your help!” Premier league soccer players spend so much time with their teammates that they develop a sixth sense for where their teammates are on the field at any given moment.
With hockey, the noise and the crush and the violence can be distracting, even overwhelming. A player who can rise above the commotion and be aware of his support staff at every given moment is one who can leverage the strengths of the entire team to help him achieve his goal.
Scouts aim to watch players play multiple times in a season. If the scout sees improvement, on-ice learning, and better decision-making, then that player will stand out. Scouts say they want to see “Good, and still getting better.”
It takes a commitment to the game to improve when you’re already “good enough.” It means early nights before games, making the hard choices, and never losing focus.
This is probably true for every sport, but it’s a stated goal of NHL scouts that they look to see who is constantly improving throughout the season.
Spending the off-season watching film, especially of top players in the same position, will help an NHL hopeful hone skills and will offer guidance for how strategies are executed at the pro level. Watching the pros wiggle out of tight spots and using visualization to put yourself there is a next-level skill that world-class athletes rely upon.
Still Playing for the Win, Even During Deep Loss
If you think that sports are not an exercise in psychology, watch players who are down by five or more points. In any sport.
Most will play with slumped shoulders, slower skating, and a lot of clock watching. When they’re down by a significant amount, those who tend to give up will just want the match to end.
But those players who play like they’re one point down or tied with just seconds on the clock, and who continue to push, push, push, are the ones who will garner a scout’s attention.
If you can still find hope when you’re getting creamed, you’ll be seen as a resilient player. And since many games are turned around in the last minutes, creating memorable comebacks when some fans are already heading out to the parking lot, this is a powerful quality to have.
This is a no-brainer. If you skip practices, you lose worth as a potential NHL player. If you miss training camp, the same. If you show up late or tired or haven’t made sure to eat a good breakfast, ditto.
No team is going to take a player seriously if he doesn’t take himself and his potential future career seriously.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Tom Brady of the NFL. This “twenty years in the game” pro baller forces himself to drink a gallon of water with electrolytes each day. He also makes time for yoga to keep his muscles and ligaments supple to avoid injury, even if he has to get up at 4 a.m. to do so.
And Serena Williams forces herself to go to the gym (which she hates) even though she’s already in great tennis shape. Why? More muscle mass means more power. More power means faster serves, and this means more wins. All of these factors together create a longer and more lucrative tennis career.
If making it to the big leagues were easy, everyone would do it. It is a rare athlete who has the work ethic to make it.
As Danica Patrick has said, “If you want extraordinary results, you have to do extraordinary things.” Perhaps this is why the CEO of Apple is up by 4 a.m. and why the Pope never sleeps later than 4:30.
There is shot volume, and there is shot efficiency. Making 25 shots on goal and getting two in looks a lot different to a scout than shooting 5 times on goal and getting two shots in.
It’s not that scouts want to see low-risk players. Yes, if the shot is clear and it makes sense, take it. If the shot doesn’t look clear, but there’s a crowd on the goaltender, take the shot.
However, wildly shooting every time you’re near the puck, instead of passing and making more intelligent plays with a chance for a higher payoff, looks amateurish. It’s an efficient use of your momentary control of the puck.
Successful assists stand out just as much to scouts as successful scoring. Furthermore, assists imply teamwork and smart strategic thinking, which are other characteristics that pro teams value.
There are nearly 700 NHL players. There are a handful of superstars, of course, but the league is full of dependable, workhorse players. Be one of them.
The “Complete Player”
Every hockey player, no matter what his position is officially called, needs to be able to play any position in a pinch. Even goaltender. If the goaltender lunges left and the puck comes right, is the player positioned to be there in case backup is needed to swipe it out of danger? Or does he relax once the puck is away from his position?
Does the player have both power and finesse? Is he a goal scorer and a defender?
The key is to never relax on the ice. Always find a way to provide support to the play. This constant readiness requires both physical and mental fitness. Although there are three periods of only 20 minutes each, every second is filled with pressure and opportunity.
Does the Player Cruise When the Puck’s Away?
When the play is on the other “corner” of the ice, some players will cruise. They’ll slow their speed and let their teammates deal with the situation across the arena.
However, star players stay in motion, anticipating the next play and what may happen in various scenarios.
The star player may only make small movements to reposition himself as play changes, but he is always ready, always anticipating what might happen and what he’ll do in response.
Although hockey is most exciting when one has the puck, one secret to being a standout player is what one does when the play is elsewhere. Be an analytical player, always be assessing the situation. See which opposing players are tired, who’s just come in, fresh and ready, and who might have already given up. Knowing opposing players’ psychological and physical points of weakness offers opportunities to swing play in their direction and capitalize on a lack of energy.
Only an alert player can take advantage of these subtle signals.
A Player’s Innate Character
No coach wants to be a babysitter. We all hear jaw-dropping stories of athletes who were lucky enough and talented enough to go pro and make the big bucks but who ruined their reputations by being prima donnas.
These athletes were noticeably absent from practices and may have become addicted to anything from alcohol to drugs to gambling to sleeping late.
Another Wayne Gretzky could show up on the scene, but if he’s going to cause trouble and destroy the morale of a very expensive and highly tuned NHL team, his draft prospects are going to drop like a lead balloon.
Tyler Seguin was traded off the Bruins roster even though he was a quality player. Seguin was reported as being too immature and not disciplined enough about his “party” habits.
Steve Downie was traded away from the Avalanche for a number of what have been called “mayhem-related reasons,” including intentionally hurting a teammate at training camp, ostensibly to “get back at him” for a previous foul.
It just goes to show that off-ice behavior can affect an NHL career. So if those rumors are already circulating about a player even before the draft, it could hurt his chances.
It’s tough to find a standout player who’s as humble as the lowest man on the totem pole. But when one is found, he’s generally snapped up and paid well.
This isn’t just true for hockey in particular, or even sports in general. It’s true in life, as well. Any job a person goes for is going to base much of its decision on that person’s amiability and willingness to take direction and consistently improve. And professional hockey is a career with colleagues and bosses who have to get along, just like in any other workplace.
NHL Scouts Listen to Regional Scouts
There are thousands of hockey players who aim for the NHL and other professional hockey leagues around the world. No one scout or team of scouts can keep track of all of them.
For this reason, it’s important to play for a coach who knows the regional scouts, has a good relationship with them, and who will put in a good word for a player who shows potential.
If you play for a team who has seen a player go to the big leagues, then you’re already going to be on the radar. Otherwise, do your research on NHL players who come from your locale and find out which coaches and teams they have played for.
Scouting at the Combine
The combine is when the top hockey prospects are brought together to show off their strength and agility. They’re not on the ice. These hopefuls are put through the same kind of physical drills that football hopefuls are put through at the NFL combine. They’re doing sprints, bench presses, long jumps, and other exercises that show what kind of general health and shape these young men are in.
You can be the best player on the ice, but if you don’t take premium care of your body and your health off the ice, it’s going to show at the combine. Coaches don’t want a superstar who may only play for three seasons. They want a player with a potential for longevity, who may play a decade with the team that drafts him.
Players Who Don’t Show Off
Scouts are often former players. They know the difference between real talent and flashy moves. Don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes with big talk; just get on the ice and play your heart out. Play smart and go for the win.
Showing off wastes time, energy, and ultimately points. Every hot college team, every local league team, and even every kids’ league team will have a star player, one who skates like a speed demon and who takes the most shots. But scouts are not looking for the “loudest” player on any team. They are looking for that array of qualities that have been discussed above.
The flashiest player is not always a “complete” player. The highest scorer is not always the one with on-ice awareness, not always the one who is willing to line up the best shots for another player, who quietly supports the efforts of other players.
Scouts travel a lot, hitting five or even six games a week and assessing the players. A great deal of this travel occurs in the winter months. They are tired and freezing, and they want to be home.
You may not get a lot of their time and patience. So you have to do the work for them and show them your best skills without fuss in the least amount of time.
A Final Word
If a player loves hockey and will do whatever it takes to elevate their game and to support the team, it will show on the ice. This is what NHL scouts look for. College scouts look for superstars, but NHL scouts seek players with longevity and a commitment to teamwork.
You can find some further information on the NHL recruitment process here.