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 desire to analyze and evaluate hockey talent. Living in London I have been very fortunate to not only see dozens of future NHL’ers come thru here, but also other hockey factories like Windsor, Erie and Kitchener routinely produce stars. There are 12 OHL teams that are within 3 hours of London so I’m literally smack dab in the middle of a hockey hotbed. Now, I can honestly say I have not been a big fan of Edmonton drafting in the OHL for many years (McDavid & Nurse the obvious exceptions along with Maksimov last year). Too often they went for the flashy players (Henrich, Hall, Gagner, Schremp, Yakupov) 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 a year and half ago to voice my opinion publicly. In doing so, I tried to share my views as to what I saw in certain players to hopefully bring a fresh perspective and gain some credibility. In 2016 I was certainly pushing hard for Alex DeBrincat in the 2nd round who I thought was the perfect (and eventual) replacement for Jordan Eberle at RW. I was also adamant about Matthew Tkachuk in the 1st though I understood the Puljujarvi pick as he unexpectedly dropped. Last year, Robert Thomas was clearly my guy with Conor Timmins being the fallback option if Thomas was off the board. Generally, 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 every year in an ever-changing NHL.
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. I have my personal preferences who I lean on for Prospect information who I think give fair and unbiased analysis. The key is to not buy into one Scout’s bias too much or one Forecaster’s breakdown as they all have their own personal preferences and may see things differently. In the end it’s a collaborative effort.
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 experiences and quite often view a player at different times then others. 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 Sense/ 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 incredible awareness. Tavares is a perfect example as he does not have an elite shot or speed but has outstanding 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. This is a “must have” trait for me drafting any player 1st overall. If not, move the pick.
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 (Robbie 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. Andreas Athanasiou comes to mind. The ability to beat defenders one on one with pure speed is a huge asset for any player. Defensively, if a defenceman can join the rush with speed it is also a big plus. Let’s face it, the NHL seems to be getting smaller and faster every year. Typically, skating is usually the difference for so many guys who end up being career minor leaguers.
Elite Playmaking ability
I choose to rank this behind strength of skating 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 big shot. Again, Tavares is a great example of that. A player who constantly gets chances, keeps pucks alive, scores or sets up big goals due to great vision and poise is an ideal playmaker. Evgeny Kuznetsov isn’t the fastest or smartest player in the world but has tremendous playmaking ability.
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.
Relentless Work Ethic / Compete Level
If a prospect doesn’t have the most talent in the world but has a relentless, never give up attitude then it’s possible he could become an overachiever at the next level and is an ideal sleeper candidate. A common buzzword amongst scouts is “Ultra-competitive”. If you hear that in regards to a prospect – he may be worth a closer look. Brad Marchand fits that mold to a tee.
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 bodies 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 NHL‘ers like Gallagher, Arvidsson and Travis Konecny. 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 usually 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 doesn’t mean he will be able to do so in the NHL. Lawson Crouse & Pavel Zacha are examples of guys who were overrated because of this.
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. Curtis Lazar comes to mind as a guy pegged as a solid two-way NHL player who’s struggled to hang on to a consistent lineup spot.
Now again, I’m not a professional by any means however over the years I have noticed several trends. If you go back and look at the scouting reports of several BUSTS you’ll see a few alarming things we’ll call RED FLAGS that were ignored at the time but should be acknowledged. If any of these show up consistently in scouting reports I’d be very concerned. Here they are….
RED FLAGS to watch out for:
Questionable Work Ethic
Look back at scouting reports for guys like Grigorenko (10th overall, 2012), Nikita Filatov (6th overall, 2008) or further back Alexandre Daigle and Pavel Brendl there were signs of questionable work ethic and/or an unwillingness to play a 200 ft game but it was overlooked due to their big offensive numbers. THIS IS THE #1 REASON WHY SCOUTS GET IT WRONG so many times. I don’t care HOW MANY points a guy gets in Junior. I care HOW he got them and if his skills will translate to the NHL. The offensive statsheet is so hard for so many people to overlook. The truth is, a guy could have all the talent in the world but if he is lazy or selfish or isn’t constantly working on getting better he’s not going to last. How many NHLers do you know who are great at offence are also lazy and don’t attempt to improve their 200 ft game in today’s NHL? Not a lot and if they are then they’re probably under fire by their coach, fans or are on their way out the door. I would NEVER draft a player who had questionable work ethic let alone in the 1st round. Just my opinion.
Questionable/Average Hockey Sense
Prospects can have all the talent in the world but if they don’t think the game at a high level or work on improving the little things including away from the puck that is a huge Red Flag in my books. The ability to find the open ice, play a 200 foot game and just make good decisions on the ice all contribute to what’s referred to as “High hockey IQ“. Great vision, poise & the ability to anticipate and read the play before it happens are also integrals parts of today’s most successful hockey players. Look at all the top picks that were busts in the past and they all had at least 1 thing in common – low hockey IQ’s. Taylor Hall is an example of a player who has average hockey sense but compensates that with Elite speed, determination & an Elite work ethic. In fact, there have been a tonne of 30 goal scorers who weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but could put the puck in the net. It can still work out if a Prospect is Elite in other areas but is definitely something to take note of.
Marginal Foot Speed/Quickness
As we know, hockey isn’t played in a straight line so when I say footspeed I’m not talking about straight-line speed (although that is part of it) I’m talking about short burst quickness, acceleration, agility and lateral mobility. I’ve talked a lot about forwards but it is extremely difficult for defencemen in this day and age to keep up if they have only marginal footspeed. Some guys can get by if they have Elite hockey IQ as they can get to the right place at the right time but usually players with marginal foot speed really struggle. A perfect example is former 5th overall pick Griffin Reinhart. For forwards, it is extremely important as well but if a defenceman is constantly getting walked due to a lack of speed he’s not going to last in the NHL. There are plenty of current examples playing in the AHL right now of guys with loads of talent but who are slow afoot and subsequently may never make it to the big leagues. Speed is the hardest thing to teach so while there are a few examples of 18-19 yr olds improving their overall quickness it is usually much tougher to do as the player gets into their 20’s.
So that’s pretty much it. There are a lot of really good people out there who officially do this for a living. My personal favourites who I like to go to on Twitter are @BrockOtten (OHL), @TheDraftAnalyst, @MarkSeidel, @TPS_guy @DaRedLineReport and I also really enjoy @DobberProspects and @FCHockey. Check them out and give them a follow if you don’t already!
To comment please do so via Twitter @TheOilKnight