It doesn’t take any special training to watch 17-year-old sensation Connor McDavid blow past a pair of hapless defenders and recognize that he’s on the verge of being something special.
But determining whether fringe prospects like Tri-City left winger Matthew Freytag or Saint John right winger Mathieu Joseph have what it takes? That requires a more nuanced understanding of the game and what it takes to succeed as a pro.
The process of scouting underagers is far more complex than it was even a decade ago, accounting both for the sprawl of the game to more far-flung locales and the availability of enhanced information-gathering techniques ranging from video to the use of advanced statistics—although to be fair, the uneven collection of information across the various feeder leagues at this point in time means the numbers game is still in the lamppost phase.
But even as the access to information improves, the scouting game still relies heavily on in-person viewings and the special knowledge of an experienced bird dog.
What exactly are they looking for? And what separates prospects like Pavel Zacha and Mathew Barzal from suspects like Freytag and Joseph? We spoke with three scouts to get a sense of what they want to see when they’re perched up in those high corner seats. Here’s what they revealed:
Skating: The pro game is faster than ever. If a prospect is going to succeed, he has to be able to keep up. “The ability to play at a high pace can be the difference between a career in the NHL and riding the buses,” one scout said. It’s not just flat-out speed they’re looking for either, although that’s important. They also key in on acceleration, lateral mobility, a quick first step and balance.
“This is something a player can improve with effort,” the same scout said. “But only so far. You want to see someone with natural ability ... [they may not have] that perfect stride, but you want to see power and [an] economy of motion.”
Hockey sense: You know the old saying, “all the tools, no toolbox?” A highly-skilled athlete can go a long way on his natural gifts, but to excel at the NHL level he needs to possess an innate understanding of the game. “It's not good enough to simply read plays,” the scout said. “They have to to have the instincts to understand it. They have to be able to anticipate plays, to understand what’s developing around them and [be] able to make the best possible decision.”
Plenty of players read and react well to offensive chances, but scouts prize the ones who can make the proper decisions in all three zones.
Competitiveness: One scout says there’s nothing that will make him dismiss a prospect as quickly as a lack of competitive fire. “You want a player who is motivated, who wants to make something out of every shift,” the scout told SI.com. “A player who will go through a brick wall to win the game.” They measure a prospect by his engagement level. Does he settle for easy ice on the perimeter or does he drive straight to the greasy areas? If he’s a forward, does he go to the net and fight through the resistance? If he’s a defender, does he eliminate opposing attackers down low? Does he go to the corners and win his share of the 50/50 puck battles? How bad does he want it?
Shot/scoring touch: Scouts base their assessment on how hard a player shoots, how accurate he is, how quickly he’s able to get the puck off his stick, and his general proficiency in different types of shots (wrister, slapper, backhand).
But it’s not just the basic tools that matter here. It’s the ability to make something of his chances. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest goal-scorer in history but he lacked what scouts would call a great shot. What he did have was scoring touch, a knack for exploiting whatever opening a goaltender allowed rather than hammering pucks at high velocity into the keeper’s logo. “The higher up the chain you go, the harder it is to score,” a scout said. “A guy who has an easy, natural touch with the puck is going to [catch my eye].”
Puckhandling: With time and space whittled to almost nothing by aggressive defensive schemes, the ability to make quick, constructive plays with the puck is critical. “You look for the ability to handle the puck in traffic,” a scout said. “Can he create space for himself [with puck movement]? Can he handle the puck at top speed?” Scouts also look for a player who can keep his head on a swivel and consistently deliver a quick, accurate pass.
Size: Small players may have a growing presence in the game, but not every gifted, undersized player is the next Johnny Gaudreau. History shows that small players are more likely to end up terrorizing the minor leagues than leading the playoffs in scoring like Tyler Johnson.
Size enhances the likelihood that a prospect can find a role in the NHL. The 6' 4" winger who can’t translate his junior scoring skills to the NHL might still find success in a depth role. That’s a lot less likely for a smaller player. “There are always going to be exceptions ... guys who play bigger than their size and some who play smaller, too,” a scout told SI.com. “This is a physically demanding game, especially in the playoffs. A player who is larger and stronger is better equipped to take the punishment ... [and] more likely to make a contribution."
Leadership/presence: This one is fairly straightforward. Is the player someone who inspires his teammates? Does he make others around him better? Is he someone the coach relies on in key situations? Can he take control of a game?
Poise: This one is a larger umbrella that covers maturity and composure. Can the player make good decisions/plays under heavy pressure? Is he someone who can handle the pressure of protecting a late one-goal lead? Can he handle big hits/cheap shots without retaliating? Can he internalize bad calls, bad breaks and bounces that don’t go his way in a manner that doesn’t negatively impact his play? “We all like a player with bite to his game, but it’s all about right time/right place,” a scout said. “Someone who flies off the handle every time something doesn’t go his way is going to hurt his team. You want to be able to trust [a player] to keep his cool when it comes down to it.”
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