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It's Not All About the Goals: What Hockey Scouts Look for in Prospects

By Scott Lowe – MyHockeyRankings.com 

NHL.com Photos

This is one of the busiest times of year for hockey recruiting and scouting.

Junior coaches have just settled on their final rosters and aren’t quite fully immersed in their seasons yet, college hockey is just ramping up and some prep schools may not even have ice to skate on for a few weeks and won’t play games until late November.

It won’t be long before coaches and scouts from programs at these levels will be entirely focused on their teams and their seasons, but for now most weekends they can be found at local ice rinks around North America looking for talented prospects. In addition, top AAA programs are playing in tournaments and showcases in various regions and are always looking for talented opposing players who might fit into their teams’ future plans.

On top of that, many rinks now have live video feeds and video-on-demand services running on platforms such as LiveBarn that allow coaches and scouts to watch a prospect they have never seen or check up on a player they are interested in whenever they have free time.

“You never know who might be watching.”

That’s something most young athletes with college or professional aspirations have heard many times throughout the history of sports, but these days that statement is more accurate than ever. And it’s important for young hockey players hoping to achieve their goals and play at the highest level they possibly can to remember those words every time they take the ice.

“Getting out to see live hockey is great,” said T.J. Manastersky, an assistant coach for the NCAA Division I program at Union College in New York. “And now more than ever we can use video to help supplement the live viewings, which can help us get a well-rounded picture of a player we are interested in.”

Some coaches like Southern New Hampshire University NCAA Division II head coach Sean Walsh will go out of their way to see players in person rather than relying too much on video: “There’s a lot you miss when watching a kid on video,” he said. “You’re really at the mercy of the camera operator.”

But others have embraced utilizing more video to maximize their recruiting efforts after relying on it almost entirely during COVID after many schools restricted coaches’ ability to leave campus and attend games in person.

“After watching so much video last year and given our recruiting budget, I found that I can see a lot more players and be much more efficient with my recruiting by using a good balance of video and in-person recruiting,” said Mike Bailey, head coach at Framingham State University, a Division III NCAA program not far from Boston. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to go up against some of the top programs in our region in terms of recruiting, so I need to see as many players as I can. Video has allowed me to see and build relationships with players I may never have been able to recruit in the past.”

While different programs have differing approaches to scouting, aspiring young players should be aware that they can be observed almost anytime, anywhere. And you never know who is watching.

Players born in 2006 will be eligible for the USHL and Canadian major-junior drafts next spring, and NCAA coaches can begin talking to players Jan. 1 of their sophomore year in high school. Anyone considering attending a prep school next fall should be aware of Jan. 1 admissions deadlines, so those coaches will be finalizing their recruit lists this fall and know who they want most by the December holiday season.

Many United States Tier 2 junior teams will start making tender offers around Thanksgiving, and Tier 3 junior coaches search for talent throughout the year. Keep in mind that junior teams often have ties to youth programs, so the 16U and 18U coaches in those programs are likely to be junior scouts as well. And for players already playing at the junior level who are aging out or looking to enroll in college next fall, now is the best time to make that final impression and earn offers from the schools they are most interested in attending.

The point is that if you are an elite-level hockey player who is 15 or older and hoping to play NCAA college hockey, it’s possible that there will be at least one set of eyeballs on any time you step on the ice at a fall tournament or showcase.

That doesn’t mean all players in that 15-to-20-year-old range will have college coaches watching them since most players will play two or three years of junior hockey after 18U and high school before the NCAA hockey dream can become reality. While the top younger and older players in that grouping might be scouted directly by college coaches, prep and junior programs provide the pathway to reaching the NCAA level for most players who ultimately get there.

It’s a long and challenging process. Patience is key. Dedication and thick skin are a must. But it’s never too early to start making a positive impression and to learn what the higher-level scouts are looking for in players they recruit.

Younger players looking to make an impression on prep school, junior or college coaches in the stands at their games may not know exactly what these scouts are looking for, and in fact may be worried about things that truly aren’t as important to higher-level coaches as they might think.

While highlight-reel goals and high-skill plays may get your name circled, that circle can easily get erased or turn in to a big “X” if those plays come at the expense of playing a team game or if the player’s next three shifts are spent cruising around the neutral zone looking for a stretch pass so he or she can score again.

“You see it happen all the time at even the higher levels,” said Bob Shattell, assistant coach at NCAA Division III SUNY Morrisville. “Kids who light up college hockey or the OHL and have to play fourth-line roles or are left out of the NHL altogether because their points don’t translate. Sometimes if you score 120 points in juniors that may translate to about eight points at the college level, because many of the players aren’t getting them the right way and are cheating the game a little bit to put up the numbers.”

Building a resume with a ton of goals and assists certainly will get a player noticed and maybe even place him or her a step ahead of the competition when reaching out to a coach or scout. The reality is that those stats are no different than the skilled plays that get a player’s name circled when coaches see someone play in person. But to ultimately get an opportunity at the next level or any higher level, players must be able to do the things scouts look for on a regular basis and know how – or show a willingness to learn how – to play the game the “right way.”

With that in mind, here are some things scouts likely are looking at when they go to watch players in person:

 

Skating

Just like with running or pure athleticism, a certain portion of player’s skating speed is genetic. Some people truly are born with the genetic makeup to be faster than others. There is an entire neurological and anatomical lesson here that I am not equipped to teach, but you can trust me. However, players absolutely can make themselves faster, more explosive and more efficient skaters through specialized on- and off-ice training.

They say that speed kills, but it also helps you stand out. That kid who is flying around the rink 100 mph with reckless abandon and who never seems to tire is just as likely – maybe even more likely – to get his or her name circled as the kid who toe drags three opponents and goes bar down for a goal.

There is a reason that even the top NHL players never stop trying to become better skaters. If the best players in the world are working to become better skaters every offseason, it makes sense that young hockey players with college or NHL dreams should be doing the same.

“If you can’t skate well, you will struggle to make an impact at the collegiate level,” Shattell said. “You don’t have to be a pretty skater, but you need to be effective and be able to get to plays fast and effectively.”

Former Northeastern University coach and current athletic director Jim Madigan also mentioned skating first while scouting a summer showcase several years ago.

“Of course, you notice the kids who can really skate,” he said.

Remember that kid who gets his or her name circled for a fancy play? That can happen with the great skaters too.

“But then what?” he continued. “What happens when he gets to the puck first? Hockey IQ is so important and is something that really stands out and that I always look for when I come to these types of events.”

That provides a nice transition to what almost every scout will tell you is the most important facet of any player’s game – assuming that the player skates at least well enough to keep up with the pace of the game at that program’s level.

 

Hockey IQ

A prospect can have a 1,500 SAT or 35 ACT with a 4.0 GPA and still not be a smart hockey player. Likewise, another player can skate like Connor McDavid but not know what to do with the puck once he or she gets it. Or a player might be able to skate just well enough to keep up, but never gets caught out of position, plays with his or her head up and almost always makes the smart, simple play that is best for the team.

“Too many young players try to do too much with the puck, especially at these showcases,” Madigan said. “You see it a lot with young defensemen. Maybe they think because they are defensemen and it’s hard to stand out that they have to show off their skill level by making individual plays even in the defensive zone. Really, I just want to see them get to pucks quickly, play with their heads up and move the puck quickly to the right place.”

A player who clearly is making plays that are best for the team at a showcase designed for players to show off their individual skills in front of scouts is definitely going to make those plays during a regular-season or postseason game that really counts. Not only does this show off the player’s understanding of the game, but it is an indication of the type of inherent unselfishness that can’t be taught and all coaches love.

“When I’m watching prospects for our level, I’m focusing on the hockey sense and skill part of it,” said Vincent Montalbano, general manager of the Tier 2 Connecticut Jr. Rangers in the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC). “Knowing what our style is with the Rangers, we play a fast-paced game and like to attack the other team, so we look for players who fit that kind of mold.”

Shattell added: “Hockey is a fast game, especially at the college level, so having a kid who really understands the game and doesn’t race around blind at top speed all the time is very important.”

In a nutshell, if a player is competing in a showcase in front of scouts and has a chance to show his or her skill by taking a defenseman to the net 1-on-1 and possibly making a spectacular play, by all means the player should go for it.

But if it’s a 1-on-2 or 1-on-3, it might be better to think about chipping the puck into the corner and chasing it down or to a spot where a teammate can battle for possession. Remember what can happen to that circle around your number if you pull off the 1-on-3 the first time but lose the puck and give the opposing team an odd-man rush the next three times you try it.

“Of course, the skill level is important,” said Montalbano, who also scouts for the Vancouver Canucks. “You have to work on your shot, get rid of your shot quicker and all of that kind of stuff, but I always say the pace of the game gets faster and guys have to be able adjust to that – the extra second or two that kids think they have, they don’t anymore. They have to find that happy space where they are comfortable playing their game and knowing that they have to make decisions a little quicker, move the puck quicker and make sure that they are always in the right position so that when guys expect them to be there and pass the puck it doesn’t end up on the other team’s stick. That understanding of the game and being able to adjust mentally is key.”

Always try to play the right way. Anytime. Anywhere. Remember, you never know who is watching.

 

Compete Level

When we talk about compete level, once again we come back to the theme of this piece: What happens after a player does something to get his or her name or number circled by a scout?

Let’s say it’s the first shift of the game. Players know the scouts are there because the game just began, and they are scattered around the building. The puck gets dumped into the corner. A player races after it, showing good enough speed, and throws a shoulder into the defenseman who is skating back to retrieve the puck. The d-man goes sprawling, the player picks up the loose biscuit and feeds a teammate streaking for the net. Goal or no goal, the player can be sure that 25 scouts just circled or wrote down his or her number.

At that point, if the player can just keep up that same level of energy and competitiveness the rest of the game, he or she should be golden.

The game progresses, and the player continues to display pretty good energy the rest of the first half – enough that the scouts are still intrigued. But as the game wears on, the score gets a little one-sided and the player seems to lose interest. Those scouts are still watching. They want to see if this player is that same tough, competitive player all the time – especially when he or she knows people are watching.

If they decide to focus on just this one player for a few shifts and see someone who is lazy on the backcheck or who leaves the defensive zone too early in hopes of getting an easy breakaway chance or who shies away from contact, that name or number likely will be removed just as quickly as it was circled.

“It’s pretty simple,” Madigan said. “If I see a kid out here competing on every single shift in the middle of July, I know he’s going to compete for me on a Tuesday night in December during break when the students are away and the building isn’t packed.”

Added Shattell: “We look for kids who play with energy and compete on every single shift. You can get a lot more out of a kid with a limited skill level, but a high compete level, ­over a skilled player who doesn’t have that.”

Also keep in mind that scouts don’t always announce their presence by sitting in a prominent location dressed in team gear from head to toe. Sometimes they show up late incognito or lurk in the corners and watch from a distance, just out of sight. That’s because they want to make sure the player they saw competing hard in that noon game when the arena was crawling with scouts is the same player under any circumstances.

It’s amazing how many scouts will emerge from the shadows after a 10 p.m. or 7:30 a.m. showcase game and knock on the locker-room door when they see a kid outworking his or her opponents during a game that most players think is a throwaway with no scouts present.

Another thing to consider is that anyone scouting those late games – or the super-early ones – is a coach working just as hard as the players to make an impression and to find those overlooked or under-the-radar prospects who may make a difference as they build their programs.

Sounds like a coach many kids might like to play for, so don’t forget that you never know who’s watching.

 

Character and Body Language

Work ethic and compete level can be indications of a player’s character, so once it is determined that those are a big part of a player’s game, the coach or scout is going to start to observe a little more and dig a little deeper.

Was the player one of the last ones off the ice after warmups, and was he or she out there goofing around or helping the referees collect pucks? How did he or she react after turning the puck over, a weak penalty call, getting short-shifted by the coach or being on the ice for a goal by the opposing team?

All of these things are part of a player’s character and are subtleties in someone’s game or behavior that a scout can dial into from the stands.

Hockey is a game of mistakes and adversity. Turnovers happen every few seconds – even at the highest levels. Coaches can’t always keep track of everyone’s ice time, so there are times when a player is unintentionally shorted because of penalties or other game situations. And sometimes the coach shortens the bench intentionally to give the team what he or she thinks is the best chance to win. A player may get pulled or benched after a mistake. Bad calls are prevalent. And sometimes, especially with many volunteer coaches at the youth level, better players are forced to sit because of political reasons.

How a player reacts and rebounds from adversity is the biggest test of his or her character. Demonstrative and frustrated reactions or negative body language can be a giant red flag for scouts.

“A huge thing to me is body language,” Shattell said. “If your body language is negative on the ice and on the bench when things aren’t going your way, that tells me a lot about you as a competitor and a teammate. It is okay to be frustrated at times, but you don’t have to let the whole rink know you’re upset, and that energy can be better channeled the next time you are on the ice.”

Once a player passes the on-ice character test, interested coaches are likely to take an even closer look at him or her off the ice

“What are your coaches saying about you on and off the ice?” Shattell said. “Are you a good teammate? Are you coachable? Are your grades up to standard? These are all components of character that are very important to us if we are going to bring you into our locker room.”

Without saying as much, Madigan echoed those sentiments as he watched an NHL draft pick cruise around the ice without playing defense while disrespecting officials and opponents and getting frustrated with his teammates.

“I wouldn’t want that kid on my team no matter how good he is,” the coach said.

John Burgess, an assistant at Division III Suffolk University in Boston has coached at both the junior and collegiate levels. Being on a college campus and bringing players into a program to become productive and exemplary members of an institution’s community make it imperative to recruit high-character people at the collegiate level.

“In juniors we are only really focused on winning and what’s going on inside the locker room,” he told a group of young players at a recent summer showcase. “And a lot of times we only have to deal with a kid for a year, so if he’s a good player who helps us win games but has character issues, sometimes you can just get through it. At the college level it’s for four years, and I don’t want to put up with that type of behavior – or worry about what’s going on when the kid isn’t at the rink with the team – every day for four years. I’ll take the good kid who works hard on and off the ice and is a great teammate any day over the better player who is going to give me four years of headaches.”

So not only do players never know who is in the stands watching, but they also might not know that the scouts in attendance are watching EVERYTHING a player does to get a complete understanding of the whole person they may be recruiting.   

There’s an old saying: “A person’s true character is determined by how they behave when they think no one is watching.”

You never know who is watching. Be the person they want to see and that you want to be regardless of who might or not be there or be tuning in.

 

Getting Them Interested

Now that we’ve established what scouts are looking for and how a player can approach the game to increase the odds that he or she will generate interest, the next thing to think about is the best way for a player to approach a coach or scout from a program he or she is interested in when preparing to play in a showcase or tournament in that coach or scout’s area.

When players participate in certain showcases or tournaments they know there will be scouts in attendance. But it’s always a good idea for a player to reach out to programs of interest that are located near the event in advance (two or three days ahead of time is NOT in advance).

It’s a much different opportunity when coaches are coming to watch specific players than if they are just attending an event looking for the standouts. If they aren’t watching a player specifically – and that player isn’t one of the big scorers or eye-catching skill players – many of the little things the player does might go unnoticed.

“When we go scouting a showcase as a whole, we have a game plan going in of what we want to watch and the types of kids we want to focus on,” Shattell said, “whether it’s based on birth year, positions, reputable teams or something similar. When going to scout an individual player, the biggest thing for us is watching their individual habits more closely. We want to make sure they are doing the little things the right way. How are they playing away from the puck? Are they still engaged and competing even if the puck isn’t on their stick or in their vicinity? Are they being heavy on pucks? How do they play along the wall? How many more battles do they win versus losing? How well do they defend?”

That takes us right back to our theme of playing the right way all the time no matter the opponent, stakes or circumstances – and whether you think someone is watching or not. If the player’s approach is always the same, there are never any concerns about having to turn it on for the scouts or knowing when the scouts actually are in attendance. The player is not putting on a show, but instead is providing a true glimpse of who he or she is on the ice.

Since that individual attention from a scout can make a big difference, what is the best way for a player to reach out to a program that is of interest to him or her?

“Simple is the best method,” said Shattell in discussing what players should include in an initial email. “Just a quick introduction; introduce yourself, your team and your current coach and give us your birth year. Then attach the schedule and just say that you hope we can make it out to one of your games. Less is more when it comes to emails from players.”

Other than mentioning a few things that may stand out to a coach, players don’t need to include too much information when reaching out. Coaches have many resources at their disposable they can use to research a player, and they will definitely do their homework. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t get a response immediately to follow up occasionally, especially if a team is in-season and a coach is busy dealing with his or her 30 players and all the others he or she might be recruiting.

“We will do our homework on them,” said Shattell, who also mentioned that the Morrisville staff replies to every email it receives. “With all the great resources available online nowadays, we can get a lot of information on kids right away. Most of the time we will know a coach they have had in the past or currently play for, so the next step is to get in touch with that coach to see how they are as a hockey player and their character. Are they coachable and a good student? How are the parents? Will they put in the extra work necessary to succeed? Things like that. If all those boxes get checked in a positive way, we will watch some video and determine if we want to go see them in person and begin to further the relationship.”

At that point, it’s up to the player to make sure he or she plays the right way - every day - no matter who may or may not be watching.

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