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What Scouts Look For: Good Skaters Get Good Opportunities Photo

This is the first in series of articles examining in detail what hockey coaches and scouts at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels look for when watching potential prospects. 


By Scott Lowe -

It’s 2022, so if I started this article by saying the sky is blue, I’m pretty sure that 50 people would jump on Twitter and tell me I’m wrong. And you know what, for that exact moment in time in their world, they just might be right.

So, for argument’s sake, I won’t say that Connor McDavid is the best skater in the world. Instead, I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s among the top five. But that’s simply not good enough for him. For anyone who has seen footage of McDavid going through his offseason training regimen, it’s clear that he isn’t satisfied with anything less than being the best when it comes to any aspect of the sport he dominates.

That drive translates on the ice to a compete level that also virtually is unmatched, so after not winning the fastest-skater contest recently at the National Hockey League’s All-Star Weekend, you can bet that McDavid will turn up his offseason on-ice training another notch – if that’s even possible.

This presents a question for young hockey players who may be reading this – or for their parents. If the best players in the world continue to work on improving their skating every offseason, why aren’t you? And if you do work on your skating, are you taking the right approach?

It’s easy – and accurate – to say that skating is extremely important for any player who hopes to play at the collegiate level or beyond. Everyone recognizes players like McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon for their speed, but if they aren’t the absolute fastest skaters in the league, is it still possible that they are among the best skaters?

There are many different factors that should be considered when determining whether a player truly is a good skater. Speed always is going to get noticed by high-level coaches and scouts. The players who win races to pucks and use their speed to apply pressure and create chaos on the forecheck – and in other situations all over the ice – always will stand out.

Players who are the most noticeable in games because of their speed usually get opportunities other players don’t. And opportunity is the key to development and future success.

There’s a reason so many players with the same last name as NHL players end up in national-team development programs, get drafted by the top junior teams and make early college commitments. Some claim that the name on the back of their sweaters is the biggest reason, but while it doesn’t hurt, that’s not necessarily true.

Just like with skating, genetics plays a role in the process, so that’s a huge consideration when we talk about these players. But none of them is being handed a spot on a high-level team or receiving pro and college offers because of their name alone. They are all very good players who often bypass their peers because they are presented with opportunities others are not afforded from the first moment they step on the ice.

These players are around the sport at the highest level their entire lives. Their fathers make a living playing the game against the best players in the world. Hockey is discussed at home and is a dominant theme in their lives. Ice time and coaching are readily available. And what club doesn’t want the young children of NHL players in its program? 

Their names and the environment in which they grow up, combined with some genetic advantages, open doors that simply aren’t opened for others. While these opportunities don’t guarantee that the players will develop into elite college or professional players, they do maximize the chances of that happening.

Likewise, good skaters will get opportunities, and opportunities increase the odds of success. What players do with those opportunities – their work ethic, character, coachability, hockey IQ, skill development, etc. – ultimately will determine how far they go.

"Good skating hides other deficiencies in your game, which allows great skaters to get more chances and opportunities that other players don’t get,” said Bryan Erikson, head coach and president of operations for the Northeast Generals, a Tier 2 junior team in the North American Hockey League (NAHL).

Not long ago we posted an article that discussed what high-level coaches and scouts look for when they are watching young players compete in game situations. After talking to a few respected folks in the business, we focused on four areas – skating, hockey IQ, consistency of effort/compete level and character/body language. These characteristics were pretty much universally accepted by the coaches and scouts who were contacted for that article.

With tryouts, junior drafts and selection camps rapidly approaching, we wanted to reach back out to a larger sample of coaches and scouts at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels to see if there were additional attributes we had overlooked, determine which characteristics are considered most important and take a more in-depth look at each area that scouts prioritize. 

This is the first in a series of articles about what high-level scouts look for in young hockey players. Skating will be the focus of this piece, but first let’s examine the areas coaches of elite hockey players find most important when they are at the rinks searching for prospects.

More than 50 coaches at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels were surveyed for this series, and there was not one specific trait that was overwhelmingly chosen as the most important characteristic in a player they were scouting. But skating was cited most often.

Here is a rundown in priority order of the attributes high-level coaches and scouts look for in potential prospects:

  • Skating
  • Compete Level/Consistency of Effort
  • Hockey IQ
  • Character/Body Language
  • Skill/Shooting 

The first three areas were very close in terms of being named by almost all the coaches who responded and having average ratings of between 2.2 and 2.5. Character/body language was the clear fourth choice, getting a few first-place votes but also ranking as low as sixth. Skill/shooting was not ranked above fourth by anyone but got the next-most overall votes.

Other characteristics that were mentioned by a few of the coahces and scouts who responded were:

  • Physical Toughness/Grit
  • Mental Toughness
  • Versatility
  • Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is a tricky concept, because it approaches the realm of hockey IQ. The coaches who mentioned this as a priority pointed to a player’s ability to read and react to changing game situations quickly as opposed to having a good all-around understanding of standard game situations, strategy and systems. This is a fine line for sure, but very important nonetheless – especially as players attempt to move up to a higher level.

As someone who spends most of my time watching players at various levels while trying to figure out what the best next step might be for them and what their ultimate ceilings may be, I frequently see players with solid all-around hockey IQs who struggle making proper decisions quickly enough as the level and pace of play increase. They know what they should do – and what they want to do – with the puck but simply aren’t able to process the rapidly evolving situation and execute quickly enough.

While it was nice to confirm that the original scouting article was not far off the mark, the responses and in-depth analysis received from the coaches and scouts who were contacted for this series demanded a closer examination of each individual area. 

Today we begin with skating.


Skating Opens Doors, But Then What?

We’ve all been at the rink watching a game and seen a kid zipping around the ice, winning races to pucks, creating opportunities with his or her legs and generally wreaking havoc and causing chaos.

“That kid really can skate,” is the usual observation when we see a player like this, when a more accurate observation might be, “That kid is really fast and competes.”

As mentioned previously, speed always will get you noticed, and it’s certainly a trait that gives a player an advantage over others when it comes to scouting and getting opportunities at higher levels.

Sean Walsh, head coach at NCAA Division II Southern New Hampshire University echoed this sentiment.

“I’ve worked for skating coaches, but for me it’s can you get from point A to point B. I don’t really care if it’s pretty or not.” 

Or as Jack O’Brien, head coach at Hebron Academy in Maine, put it: “If a kid can skate, I only need to see him for about 20 seconds. It’s hard to teach skating in my position, therefore skating is almost everything for me.”

There is more to being a good skater than speed, however. Some players who possess average speed are fast when skating with the puck. Players who may not be the fastest in terms of raw speed but are comfortable using their edges, can stop on a dime and can change directions quickly often are more difficult to defend than players who possess tremendous top-end, straight-ahead speed.

Explosiveness, known in other sports as first-step quickness, also can be as important or more important than raw speed. A smart player who is explosive in the first few strides and knows how to use his or her body can win races and battles against faster players.

Skating efficiency is another buzzword you hear more often these days. Does a player get from point A to point B quickly enough without a lot of extra wasted motion and energy? In the past, these types of players were described as being “smooth” or “river” skaters. 

Then there is strength. Players who are strong on their skates and difficult to knock down and knock off pucks have a place in the game even if they aren’t the fastest or most efficient skaters. Overall strength and fitness, in my experience, is probably the most overlooked aspect of the game for players trying to play at higher levels.

Ice time is great and power-skating sessions with knowledgeable skating coaches are essential for a player to improve his or her skating. But when it comes to explosiveness and being strong on your skates, time spent off the ice in the weight room performing hockey-specific exercises with a certified strength and conditioning coach (not your hockey coach) is just as important – if not more important. Not everyone has easy access to ice time all year long, but that’s no excuse for players not training to improve their overall strength, fitness and skating ability.

So, the fastest skater isn’t necessarily the best hockey player, but speed does get a player noticed and opens doors. Just like a player who makes a highly skilled play that leads to a goal, a fast skater will get his or her number circled by scouts almost immediately. It’s at that point that the player goes under the microscope as the coaches in attendance dissect the other aspects of his or her game. 

“Skill can be taught, and it’s easier to teach than skating, so for us it’s less to do with them not having skill,” said Anthony Matarazzo, assistant coach at NCAA Division III Castleton State College. “However, hockey sense with the puck is a big deal for us, so even though we can teach you ‘better’ plays, you still have to be smart enough to make those reads. Would we take a player who is really fast and competes but doesn’t always do the right thing with the puck? It’s all relative to the level they are playing at. Making the wrong plays is different at one level than it is for players playing at higher levels.”

Erikson has had plenty of experience with fast players who need to develop their overall games. To him, speed is important, but there are other aspects to skating that can make fast players – and players who may not be as fast – better players at his team’s level. The NAHL sends almost all of its players on to play at the NCAA level and is one of the top North American junior leagues in terms of producing Division I players.

“I have had plenty of the fast guys who maybe aren’t the most skilled players,” he said. “The biggest thing to me with a fast player – with good or bad hands – is change of pace. It’s like a pitcher who throws 100 mph. If it is straight and flat, every good hitter can get around on it. If you are a fast skater, you need to add deception to your game. Slow down, speed up, pull up on the walls, use your lateral quickness. That is the easiest way to mitigate hands that need work. Make the attack about your feet. If you only go one speed, the attack is about your hands more, and that can work to the defenseman or forechecker’s advantage.” 

Jay Punsky, a junior coach at the Tier 2 and 3 levels for the Islanders Hockey Club in Massachusetts and an NCAA Division III assistant coach for Worcester State University, believes that fast players with high compete levels can be effective junior players. That should be enough to at least get them noticed by college scouts. 

“High-energy players who compete hard and make smart decisions can be very effective at the junior level,” he said. “Those players need to understand that if they want to progress to the college level, their skills need to improve. There are a lot of fourth-line players at the NCAA level who were goal-scorers in junior hockey.” 

Jim Henkel, head coach of the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the Tier 2 National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC), prefers players who provide something other than just speed and energy on his junior team’s roster.

“These players are becoming more popular unfortunately in today's game,” Henkel said. “They can skate like the wind, but most often don't accomplish much. And while they are useful on the forecheck, they don't get anything out of their effort. We generally would pass on this type of player. If a player is fast, he will win a lot of races to pucks, but is he then strong enough to possess the puck and make a play?”

Skating smoothness and efficiency also is something that catches Henkel’s eye. 

“Smoothness and mechanics will be equated to durability and how much energy is expended to get from point A to B,” he said. “If a player has to use a lot of energy because of a less-than-efficient stride, competing in the third period is going to be difficult.” 

Like Henkel, Erikson prioritizes skating when scouting players but is happy to give a well-rounded player who may not be the prettiest skater an opportunity. He points to Colin Bilek, a two-year captain for the Generals who went on to become captain at Army, as a prime example. 

“He is not a pretty skater, but his IQ, shooting, grit and determination are off the charts,” Erikson said. “I know skating held him back from more Division 1 offers, but he is going to play professional hockey because of all the other boxes he checks. I will always take a kid that isn't pretty skating as long as it isn't a huge liability, but it means he needs to be further ahead in other areas.”

Added Henkel: “The game has changed so much in the last five years, that if someone isn’t a great or efficient skater, it becomes a scenario where that player has to check a number of other boxes to be a worthwhile selection for our team.”

Now that we are clear on the various attributes involved in being considered a good skater by high-level coaches, let’s examine how players can improve their skating.


Can Skating Be Improved?

Genetics certainly play a factor when it comes to a player’s baseline speed.

“I have a player on my team now whose father was an Olympic speed skater,” said Connor Gorman, head coach at New Hampton School in New Hampshire. “This player is one of the smoothest and most effortless skaters I have ever played with or coached, so what does that tell you?”

But it still is possible for players to improve their overall speed and explosiveness to some degree through power-skating programs and hard work in the gym with a certified strength coach.

Players also can become stronger skaters and improve their on-ice stability with a combination of on- and off-ice balance and stability training that includes edge work, one-leg exercises and drills, core-strengthening and movements performed using stability balls and balance boards.

On-ice edge work, along with on- and off-ice agility drills, can enhance a player’s ability to change directions quickly and improve his or her lateral mobility. Skating efficiency can be improved through video stride analysis combined with an on-ice program that focuses on lengthening a player’s stride and eliminating unnecessary extraneous movements.

Finally, performing puck-handling, shooting and passing drills that also incorporate specific concepts previously introduced in power-skating and edge-work sessions can help players improve their overall skating in a way that translates to actual game situations and helps them develop the skills higher-level coaches seek.

“{To help players become better skaters} we like to stress the skating aspect of the game on our skill days and give the players drills to work on before and after practice,” Henkel said. “We also utilize video and our off-ice gym sessions for developing muscle memory.”

If the top skaters in the world continue to get better at their craft, so can you.

“If you have a 17-year-old player who is a poor skater, it is much harder to fix than an 8-year-old kid who has bad technique,” Erikson said. “You need constant repetitions with good form in order to improve dramatically, but you can always make your stride more powerful, longer and more effective with good practice.”

And if you work hard enough to improve your skating, chances are that your name or number will be one of the first ones circled the next time you play in front of a group of higher-level coaches and scouts.

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