As a former hockey player, I’d argue that the journey to pro hockey is among the toughest in all of sports. Please bear with me. I’m not just being a total hockey fanboy.
The vast majority of high school hockey players in the United States have to play in the U.S. junior hockey leagues before even being considered for a Division I college team. And if they make it to the NCAA, only a select few will ever find their way onto an NHL roster. About 50 percent of the approximately 680 NHL players come from Canada
There’s a lot of competition and not a lot of roster spots.
So everything you do counts, both on and off the ice, for you to have any chance of making it to the Show.
To help you get an inside edge, we talked to Bill Scott, Director of Salary Cap and Assistant to the President of the Edmonton Oilers, to learn about the qualities they value in young players and what leads to a successful hockey career.
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STACK: What are some of the qualities you look for in a hockey player that can be predictors of success in the NHL?
Bill Scott: There are a number of things we look at in guys to get the whole package. At 18 years old, most guys have a deficiency somewhere in their game that you try to manage and determine whether they’ll be able to overcome the deficiency at 18 years old and what they will look like at 23.
One of the most important things is competitiveness. It’s their drive to succeed, their drive to win. Are they willing to pay the price and do the little things in their game?
You’ll see players out there with a lot of talent, but they look lazy and don’t look engaged in the game. So with those guys it can be hard to predict. You like them because of the skill level, but you don’t see that intense fire in their game, and sometimes that’s because they’re lazy. Sometimes that’s because the game is too easy for them, but they have it in them.
So you have to do a lot of background work on the players. Talk to their coaches, talk to their teammates. Find out what type of person they are, how they are in practice. We don’t really get to watch practices of our players that we’re drafting so it’s important to do a lot of homework.
Number one is competitiveness. Number two, you’ve got to have skill. That’s not saying you can’t find it or can’t work on it, but you need to have a certain level of skill to be able to play with those better players that are going to be there in the NHL, or at the next level.
Then there’s the great debate on skating. You obviously have to be a great skater to play in the NHL, but at 18 years old that’s something that can be worked on and developed. There are a lot of players, you’re not sure if they have the skating ability to play in the next level. They might not at 18, but they develop it in a few years. They turn into great players because they had the other qualities you were looking for.
When you’re drafting, you’re betting on a lot of deficiencies in players that you see and you want to make sure you don’t put too much weight on their deficiencies knowing that they may be able to overcome a lot of them if they still are young. We have to make sure we still put a lot of value on what they’re able to do well.
Do young hockey players overlook the importance of any particular aspect of the game?
I think number one they need to be a good teammate and a good team player. Teams and scouts want to see that you can play within a team, play within a system. You certainly want to have some offense to your game, but you need to show you can play defensively.
The defensive side of the puck tells you a lot about their hockey sense and how smart of a player they are. It’s not as fun, it’s not as attractive to play in the defensive zone, but you look at a player like Pavel Datsyuk and how unbelievable he is defensively. He’s had an unbelievable NHL career for a long long time—now obviously he’s gone back to the KHL. But that’s a huge part of the game, because if you’re stuck in your own zone because you can’t get the puck out, then you have no chance of going and showing your offense.
You also definitely need that high competitiveness and work ethic. You got 20 to 23 guys on your team and you need to be the most competitive guy out of that 23. You need to keep raising your game and raising your level of competitiveness all the time. If you have guys on your team that don’t compete on that level, try to bring them up.
Is it beneficial for a hockey player to play all year, or should they take some time off?
I think nowadays there’s tournament after tournament. You get into summer and guys are probably on the ice too much. I think it’s important to give their bodies recovery time in the off-season. Take a few weeks when the season ends, make sure you’re recovered. You are still developing when you’re young, so you need a little bit of rest. Just have a smart strengthening and conditioning plan. Get a good coach. Make sure they know your body and what you are trying to work on and what you need to improve.
It’s important not to burn yourself out. The summer is a strategic time. Building muscle mass, strength and speed and all those things are important, but you can’t do it all every day. So it’s important to have a good plan and make sure that you’re taking care of the biggest deficiencies in your game, bringing those up and continuing to work on the good parts of your game. It’s a lot to balance, but that shouldn’t mean you go into a overload mode and burn yourself out during summer, because it’s a long season ahead.
How do you rank strength and conditioning when evaluating players?
Well the Combine results are interesting. There’s a lot that goes into those tests. I don’t think you can walk away from any one test and say that’s a significant factor to a player, because at 17, 18 years old a player can improve in all of those areas. I think there’s just a lot of factors and you have to be careful not to put too much weight into there.
I think it’s valuable that you get to see the players up close. You get to see how competitive they are. You get to see how hard they’re going to work to get in an extra rep. To go a little bit further on the bike, to push themselves. You can tell pretty quickly the guys who just give up on themselves early in those tests. So you get to see the fire in the belly with those guys, and you get to see their body frame. Are they skinny as a rail and have small shoulders or do they have a wide frame that you know they can add a lot of muscle mass onto and get themselves bigger and stronger? You don’t get to see all that when they have a suit on, but when they have their shirt off or a tight shirt on, you can get a better feel what this guy is going to look like in 5, 6, 7 years down the road and what your team can do with them.
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Are hockey players who grew up playing multiple sports better off in the long run?
We haven’t done too much research on our own guys. Or at least we haven’t collected all the evidence and put it together. But I think that in general it’s good if you want to go play some other sports. It’s good to be involved in some other activities, other teams, get your body doing some other exercises and stuff like that. I don’t think playing hockey year round gives you a big advantage over the other guys. I think it’s good to explore other sports and do those activities. And as long as you’re continuing to get stronger as an athlete, I think it’s going to parlay itself onto the ice as well and have a positive effect.
Burnout is a concern for a lot of kids. You see it in all kinds of different sports. You want the player to love the game, and to love the game you might need to step away from the game a little bit and get a little bit of rest. These kids are driving themselves crazy playing hockey, you know all 365 days a year from the time they are 6 years old, and their parents are driving them. I don’t think that’s good for them. If the player just absolutely loves the game and wants to play year round and it’s not having a negative effect on what he thinks of the game, then I have no problem with that at all. But if the player want to go play some other sports in the off-season, I think by all means he should.
How should a young hockey player balance skill development with team commitments and work in the weight room?
Skill development is a really huge part of the game. So without a doubt, take some more time off and focus on skill development. It doesn’t have to be all on the ice. Ice is expensive to rent. Usually you need a few other people out there with you. If you’re on the ice, you at least need a coach. It’s tough to do all that on your own. But there’s a lot of stuff you can do at home in your basement, in the driveway with your buddies. Just work on stick handling, shooting, passing—all those kinds of things and footwork.
Do you recommend any specific at-home drills?
The simpler drills are usually the best. You can throw a bunch of your shoes out on the driveway and stick handle around them. Shooting drills—you want make sure you have a purpose. You’re trying to pick a corner, you’re trying to get all four corners in four shots or whatever it is. Just shooting helps when you’re trying to build up a little bit of strength, but if you’re trying to get more accurate and be a better player, a more skilled player, you need to have a purpose.
There’s video of Pat Kane out there where he drops about fifty pucks on the ice and he has one puck and he stick handles through it. It doesn’t have to be pucks on the ice. It can be objects from your house in the driveway that you’re stick handling around the whole time. You can get very creative and it will certainly help you.
If you read anything on Connor McDavid . . . he created his own courses and ran through them, and I think rollerbladed through them just to work on his skills, and he would do it day and night. All day and all night long. It doesn’t take a lot of money, it doesn’t take a lot of ingenuity to do it. You just have to be a little bit creative and be willing to put some work in. It’s not too sophisticated but it gets the job done and that’s all that matters.
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