I am not a professional scout but that does not mean I do not have a keen eye for talent. In fact, I have been unofficially scouting the OHL for the better part of two decades either for pools that I was in, potential prospects for the Oilers or just my own personal satisfaction. I’ve always had an interest in the profession and have always looked for things that scouts didn’t see. I love to go back over the years and review scout’s reports to see where they got it wrong. I’ve heard some say on record that sometimes they only need to watch a player a couple times or at one specific tournament to form their opinion. Well, if that’s the case I would be overqualified as I practically scout every OHL game I watch now and it numbers in the hundreds every year. Of course it’s much easier when you only focus on one particular league and one particular team for the most part but you get the idea.
What I do know is I have a burning to desire at analyzing and evaluating talent. Living in London I have been very fortunate to not only see dozens of future NHLers come thru here but also other hockey factories like Windsor, Erie and Kitchener also routinely produce stars. There are literally 10 OHL teams that are within 3 hours of London so I’m literally smack dab in the middle of a hockey hotbed. I can honestly say I have not been a fan of Edmonton drafting in the OHL for many years (McDavid & Nurse the obvious exceptions). They too often went for the flashy players who lacked that one most important trait I feel is essential in Top picks – high hockey IQ. All of that is hindsight now as I only recently joined Twitter last year to voice my picks publicly. In doing so I tried to share my views as to what I saw in certain players to hopefully share a fresh perspective and gain some credibility. I am on record being pro DeBrincat & anti-Benson with Edmonton’s 2nd round pick and was a big advocate of drafting Tkachuk in the 1st though I understood the Puljujarvi pick. I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent for years at projecting OHL’ers at the next level (no one is perfect) especially and am getting much better at it overall.
The toughest part for me is trying to evaluate players outside of the OHL. I don’t have the access to WHL or QMJHL games much so when I do watch tape I really don’t know the competition they are facing or the quality of teammates they are playing with. So even though they might look good on tape it may be against a lousy team and I wouldn’t really know the difference. Watching the OHL I typically know exactly how difficult a team is having watched them several times over the years. So I try to apply similar principles and look for the same traits or skills I look for in any league. It is not a perfect science by any means but for the average fan interested in evaluating prospects I think it is a good start on how to rate each prospect individually. I don’t pretend I know it all or have all the answers. What I try to do is bring a refreshing take with as much information as I can and try to piece it together so it makes sense. The key is to not buy into one Scout’s bias too much as they all have their personal preferences.
As a rule of thumb, I generally don’t look at HOW MUCH offense a player creates (unless it is an enormous amount) rather HOW they generate it and whether or not that formula will work in the Pros. This way you don’t overlook obvious flaws in a prospect’s game by just staring at their gamesheet. Scouting really is just Professionals giving their Opinion on players they evaluate. They all have their own personal preferences and the whole system is far from perfect. Sometimes they have to base their opinions off minimal exposure which is why some guys get undervalued. Despite what scouts may say here is what I look for when I watch the games. Keep in mind I am still an amateur. I rank them in order of importance when determining whether the player has skills that will translate to the NHL.
- Elite Hockey IQ – This is the most important trait a player can have IMO. It’s what makes the difference between some #1 overall picks like Crosby, Stamkos, Tavares versus guys like Yakupov, Daigle, Stefan. They think the game at an elite level and are aware of what’s happening on the ice all times – often making plays few others can with their vision & patience. Tavares is a perfect example as he does not have an elite shot or speed but has incredible hockey sense which makes him a Top player. Yakupov is probably the opposite of him in that he has the skill & speed but not the high hockey IQ. A “must have skill” for me drafting any player 1st overall.
- Elite Speed – Probably the 2nd most important trait. If a player has skill and great hockey sense but is slow afoot, he may struggle to adapt to the pace of NHL (Schremp). Teams can’t afford to have a guy who is a liability due to his lack of speed. Whereas if a player is smart & fast, he has more of a chance to develop the other parts of his game & may be able to at least play 4th line until his skills get better. Athanasiou comes to mind. Defensively, if a guy gets walked routinely he’s not going to last long at the NHL level but if a defenceman can join the rush with speed it is a huge asset.
- Elite Playmaking ability – I choose to rank this behind speed because I think a fast smart player with average playmaking ability has more of a chance to stick in NHL than a smart, skilled player that is slow. That can be debated. This skill really depends on who is evaluating sometimes but I typically attribute it to passing, stickhandling and puck possession along with other intangibles. One can be a playmaker without having a great shot. Again, Tavares is a great example of that. A player who constantly gets chances, keeps pucks alive, scores or sets up big goals is an ideal playmaker.
- Elite Shot/Hands – When a player has such a blistering slap shot, dynamic wrist shot or wonderful hands it is hard to ignore. Typically if it is an offensive defenceman or scoring winger I definitely want to see if their shot is NHL caliber. The quick release is just as important as the strength of the shot if not more. There are plenty of players over the years who could shoot the biscuit but were either erratic with it or took too long to get it off. I’m ok with a player if he has just a decent shot or decent hands as long as he has top notch speed and hockey sense (Darren Helm). There is a place in the NHL for these type as they are typically your best penalty killers. However, if a guy can shoot but can’t skate or doesn’t take smart shots his talents are usually wasted.
- Excellent Size – This is the most overrated trait IMO and is why guys get overvalued or taken higher than they should every draft. In an ever evolving NHL the need for big bruisers is diminishing as the speed of the game continues to increase. Grit is more important regardless of the size of the player. Some smaller prospects are harder on the puck than bigger players as we see in NHLers like Gallagher, Arvidsson and Marchand. Don’t get me wrong if I had to pick between a 5’9” or 6’3” player who both have speed & skill I’m taking the bigger guy but too often scouts bump a guy up over a more talented player solely because of his size which is a mistake. Just because a kid dominates with his size over smaller players in Junior doesnt mean he will be able to do so in the NHL.
- Two way player – This is easily the most teachable skill and only a bonus if a prospect has all the other tools already. If a guy is average in the other skills but is a top two way player in Junior, he’s likely only going to be a minor leaguer or fringe NHLer at best. You need to have an elite skill you can hang your hat on to make it to the pros.
So that’s pretty much it. Again, far from an exact science but a nice blueprint on what I look for when evaluating talent. If you follow me on Twitter on gamenights you know nothing drives me nuts more than bonehead plays, dumb passes, easy to play against, lazy players regardless of talent. I definitely have an appreciation for smart, heady players who play with grit and don’t take nights off. Hopefully the Oilers can draft a few more like that next week.
You can reach me @TheOilKnight on Twitter.