Soups on Scouting
This is a piece I have been wanting to do for a very long time. And then it became a piece that I worked on for a very long time. Some of the reason for that is time constraints, but mostly it was fear of leaving anything out.
Let me start this off by saying this: I’m not a scout. I’ll never claim to be a scout, unless of course, someone hires me to actually be a scout. It doesn’t mean that I don’t do it. I try to watch as much as I can with any player. But the majority of the work I do is research. Other ACTUAL scouts are who I primarily base my rankings off of. I try to listen to the best people out there (which is key as there are a lot of people out there right now, specifically on social media, who want to pretend to be scouts and call themselves scouts, but they aren’t), but I don’t pay too close of attention to any rankings they may do. I rank based off what the consensus is of their reports. If I’ve seen something myself that maybe I disagree with, then I’ll trust my own eyes, but for the most part, I go off the reports they do.
Now, having said all this…
I do have my own theories on it and this is basically how I scout when I do it. Let’s just get right to it because this is pretty damn long!
Pretty self-explanatory, these are the traits I covet the most.
It has always been at the top of my list, but in the last three or four seasons it has gotten to a point where it is tough for me to give the time of day to anyone who isn’t at least above average. At least. If I’m building a team these days, it is imperative that the team has two qualities: they are among the fastest teams in the leauge, and the blueline is full of puck movers. But of course I’m not just talking about top-end speed. Foot speed, edge work, lateral mobility, etc. It all factors in. But skating is so far above anything else for me at this point that I have trouble giving love to anyone who isn’t at least an above average skater. Average skater? You better do everything incredibly well, or I better have reason to believe you can improve it.
I need to see a guy show his intelligence. Sometimes that player might not show it on the ice as he’s developing. A perfect example of this that I’ve used for years is Darnell Nurse. Fans and media think that Nurse is a dumb player for lack of a better term. I say that Nurse has shown off the ice that he is a HIGHLY intelligent guy, whether it be in interviews or the fact that he was the OHL scholastic player of the year in 2013, and when he was coming up he was always able to get by on his incredible ability and never had to think the game. This, in my opinion, is the reason why Nurse keeps fooling the analytics crowd. Insanely gifted, highly intelligent, and an incredible work ethic combine to make Nurse a guy who is continually growing and that growth may not quit until he’s perhaps into his 30’s much like Brent Burns. Now, does he have the “hockey IQ” that so many crave? No, it’s fair to say he doesn’t. But this is why I believe a player like himself will keep improving is because his intelligence will catch up with his physical gifts at some point and when they do he could be something special. Anyway, that’s the one rare example. Nine times out of ten you see it in a players game. I’m just saying that just because a player doesn’t display it on the ice, don’t necessarily discount them as lacking it.
Very obviously vital to the development of a prospect is going to be his will to compete. I’ll get into work ethic specifically a little later on, but the fact of the matter is that we have very little insight as to how hard a player does or doesn’t work away from the rink, but we can absolutely see how hard they compete on a night to night basis. Going to the tough area’s on the ice, not backing down when physically challenged, willingness to play physical, etc. All of those are examples of compete. A player in junior, college, Europe, whatever, better show some signs of competing because if he isn’t willing to at those level’s, then what is he going to do once NHL players go up against him?
These are traits that a player doesn’t HAVE to have, but they’re pretty damn vital!
I’ll actually get into it more later when I talk about something related to vision, but simply put for this section, I place a pretty big value on it. I was torn for a long time whether or not I’d list this as a “need”. I can argue it either way.
Hard on Pucks
When I say hard on pucks, the three things that I think of are the ability to protect the puck, the ability to win puck battles, and that a player doesn’t get knocked off the puck easily. You could label this under compete and that is completely fair. But the reason I don’t is that I feel this is something that can come with development (mainly a player gaining strength).
It’s not a “trait”, but a factor. I talk numbers more than I value them. But the one thing with numbers is that I’ll dig into them because there are just so many variables. The big thing I look at is even-strength numbers. Casey Mittlestadt is a good example of someone who had awesome numbers, but so much of his damage was done on the PP. Fast forward to the 19-20 season, and it looks like Mittlestadt can’t play in the NHL (and don’t twist that, I’m not saying he IS a bust, just that he is on track to do so). At this point, I’m not overly big on analytics when looking at prospects (I’ll discuss that later), and while I look at NHLe, I definitely don’t take that as the gospel as some do. I’ll look mostly at even strength numbers and then take into consideration the role the player is in, how much talent is around that player, etc and try to find players from past drafts who were in similar situations and how they panned out.
People think hands, they think of goal scoring only. And no doubt, great hands can create a lot of goals. It’s a trait that can get overrated by a lot of people because sweet hands gets a player on the highlight reels more than anything else. Having said that, there is no denying that no matter what position you play, the ability to handle the puck is pretty damn important. Do you need to be able to toe drag anyone at any time? No. But it can’t be like handling a grenade for a player.
Some of these (not all, for example the first one isn’t) are traits that a player can develop. So while it’s big to have them on draft day, it’s not as if it is hopeless that it can be developed. The others are straight forward…you hope every player has them, but if they don’t it isn’t the end of the world.
I shouldn’t have to explain this, but I will anyway. Basically a guy who is willing to throw hits, block shots, not just be willing to go to all the dirty areas but go the extra mile. Some call it “heart” and that’s fine, but I believe guys can have heart and still choose not to block shots with their teeth. To me, it takes serious balls to do that! Obviously some are going to file this under intangibles. I’m going to talk about intangibles in a bit, but basically my belief is that you can see a guy who plays with balls, therefore it gets its own category.
For some reason, many scouts don’t seem to know how to properly describe this, or maybe they just don’t value it nearly as much as I do. It is huge for me though, mainly because it is so damn rare to find. Playing with balls as I just described is one thing. Someone who is willing to battle his ass off is endearing. But finding guys who are willing to do whatever they feel they need to in order to win is another level and SO valuable.
For most, shooting ability would be placed under the important category, if not the need category. It’s not to suggest that if a player literally has a muffin of a shot that it’s not concerning. I’m referencing players like Owen Tippett, Eeli Tolvanen, more recently Cole Caufield, or if I go Oilers eccentric then Raphael Lavoie. All players with dynamite shots, but a lot of people seem to fall in love with the shot and don’t look at the overall package. And again, high volume shooters can’t play with each other. A line of Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine likely wouldn’t work, or at least nowhere near the level that some would believe it would. Anyway, I love a guy with a big shot, but I need more than that which is why the shot is a “want” for me rather than being “important” or a “need”.
I debated whether I would put this in the “important” category or not, but I put it here because when scouting a player I won’t dismiss a guy because he can’t defend. The ability to defend can be coached up as we all know. What does get concerning with someone who can’t defend is whether or not they’re willing to be coached up to do it?
I’ll talk about it still where others won’t. Can we stop pretending that it doesn’t even deserve to be discussed?! A lot of the time with size comes strength. Weight is more important than height as it goes without saying (yet here I am saying it) that the heavier the player, the tougher they’ll be to knock off the puck or move in general. It’s funny, a few years ago I recall Craig Button being involved in a debate about whether or not wingspan mattered. I can’t recall where Craig came out on it (I think he was pro wingspan), but to me, wingspan matters more than a players height because that is actually about reach. Just because someone is tall doesn’t mean they have the wingspan to match. So just because someone is tall doesn’t really matter, but the fact of the matter is that someone taller can put on more weight and will usually have a large wingspan which makes it much easier to protect the puck. I don’t believe that you should sacrifice speed and/or quickness for size, but it still is a very big bonus if a player has it.
What? I couldn’t think of another way to say this. Basically I’m thinking about shit like face-off ability obviously for centres, ability to walk the line well for defencemen, play along the wall for wingers, all things that I believe can be fixed with proper development time and coaching which are based on where they play. I’m not going to punish D-men for being awful in the dot…
First thing I should say is that intangibles would be work ethic, passion for the game, coachability, leadership, and how teammates view the player. Someone reading this is saying “of course, why is this schmuck explaining this to me” and the answer is I’m just trying to cover all the bases. For people such as myself who aren’t with an NHL club and/or don’t have access to interviewing the players, this is a wildcard. If I had that ability, intangibles are pretty high on my list. The analytics world probably would vehemently disagree with me on this, but we’re not talking about kids who have already made the show. The intangibles are pretty vital to a players ability to make the jump to pro hockey. In junior, a player can get by on his talent alone. But that is much tougher to do in pro hockey, and damn near impossible to do in the NHL. If a player is lacking in the intangibles, his chances of sticking in the NHL are pretty slim no matter how talented the player is. I will say however that I’m not going to go overboard on a player who only has the intangibles covered and not much else. You still need the talent to play. Remember: Rudy only played one series as a Senior at Notre Dame. That was college…not the NFL…
I list them as a wildcard only because of how fresh they are to the process. I’m DEFINITELY not anti analytics. And there are things we find out about players analytically throughout the process which is very beneficial to ranking players more properly. But you can also say that with intangibles after the combine is complete and word comes down about how well players did or didn’t interview.
It’s tricky. Is it a good thing if a player is in amazing shape? If they are, then they’ve likely maxed out to this point. If they aren’t, then they clearly have a lot more room to grow. But the flip side to that is if they aren’t, then will they learn to be better conditioned (the best example that comes to mind is Drew Doughty)? If they’re in shape, they must care…right? And if they aren’t, then they don’t…right? But if they have been so good without being in shape, then what could they be once they are?! And if a kid was so good while in terrific condition, then he is limited with how much he can improve, right? If a tree falls in the forest…
Now, I think that covers everything as far as skills/assets go. Hopefully I didn’t forget things, but it’s a lot to cover! But when doing the rankings, for me, it doesn’t end there. What I factor in (and this is where I end up differing from most other independent guys) is I try to look at things from a team-building perspective. There are things I believe you NEED as a team, and things that people simply want on their team. You want snipers, but you need playmakers. You want a dynamic winger, but you need a 200-foot centre. I always make the comparison with wingers and centres that it is like buying a Ferrari when living in Edmonton. For six months of the year you’ll look deadly! But you better own a truck, because that Ferrari isn’t going very far down an unplowed street. You want the Ferrari, but you need the truck.
I value centres more than any other position in the draft. Obviously in hockey, your goaltending is the most important position. But 18 year old goaltenders are in the absolute best case scenario a MINIMUM of three years away, and can be a total crapshoot due to the mental aspect of the position. Defence is at least as important for a club as centre is, but the big thing I notice in this league is that it’s easier to win without marquee defencemen then it is without marquee centres. History shows that simply having depth on D has won a lot more than depth down the middle has. And then of course if you’re looking at winger vs centre, most centres can easily play the wing where it’s rare for a winger to make the jump to the middle (even with the most recent example being Blake Wheeler, he’s a guy for years I’ve wondered why he’d never been tried at centre and I’m asking myself the same question this season with Lafrenière).
A lot of this can completely depend on what kind of winger we’re talking about. I look back on a guy like Mitch Marner, and I ranked him 7th in a draft year where I feel I got my rankings pretty spot on. Obviously, that one wasn’t though and it was because I discredited wingers too much. I failed to think “he’s an elite playmaker, which means he’ll make people better” a trait which I adore as everyone should. I can also think of guys like the Tkachuk brothers who were legitimate power forwards which is incredibly valuable. So basically for me a winger has to bring something very special to the table. For the most part, wingers are 3rd in the pecking order for me. For the most part, if you’re drafting a forward, then they better be pretty clear cut better than any other centre who is on the board. Most centres can play the wing, and very few wingers can play centre.
IQ, skating, and ability to move the puck are the big ones I look at for defencemen. I don’t really even want to look at a D-man who doesn’t possess these traits. We probably get too caught up these days with pure numbers for D-men and assume they move the puck well. I believe a team full of Hampus Lindholm or Jacob Slavin types would not only win a shit ton of games, but probably be sustainable under the cap with how those types of players get undervalued. The only reason defencemen aren’t on equal footing with centres for me (again, always exceptions to the rule) is A) I find them to be a little riskier than centres (although I don’t have official numbers on that, could be wrong) and B) as I said above, I feel as though you need at least one elite centre if not two to win a Cup, where I don’t believe a true number one defenceman is a necessity.
Basically…forget about them. I personally just have a few rules on tendys. 1) I’d take one a year, and I’d select him no earlier than the 63rd pick. 2) No smaller than 6’1 (I’m a “sizest” when it comes to goaltenders). 3) Have to be quick and athletic. Like everything in life, always exceptions to the rule. Yaroslav Askarov is the exception to this rule, as was Ilya Samsonov, as was Andrei Vasilevskiy (Russia has become quite the goalie factory!) For certain teams in the 2020 draft I would be taking Askarov in the 1st round. But that terrifies a lot of people because of how unpredictable goaltending is. As I say when talking about Askarov in my rankings though, you need to be able to identify when the time is right to recognize an exception to the rule.
Terms I’m not a fan of
This isn’t figure skating. We aren’t judging production in hockey. A highlight reel goal isn’t getting a 6 (although only a 5.7 from the Russian judge). Now obviously I’m not looking to shit on skill, but I feel it is simply a quality that gets overrated by some. People get enamoured with a player pulling off the lacrosse goal or toe dragging a number five defenceman who is attending Western next fall. Obviously I love skill, but as soon as I start hearing about dynamic someone is, I start wondering just how bad his flaws are because it is often a term people will use to distract from a players flaws because they like watching that player play. Does that make sense?
Types of players I really value
All situation centres and defencemen
You would think this is obvious for all, but it very much so is not. I think of a kid like Kaiden Guhle in this upcoming draft and think “how exciting, that kid has a legitimate opportunity to be a 25+ minute a night defenceman. Another kid I think of is Anton Lundell, specifically at the idea of Buffalo getting him. If the Sabres had a centre who can put up 50-60 points and do all the dirty work? Well…I guess they’d give him to St. Louis…but they know they need that guy playing behind Jack Eichel and if they could get that guy it’d likely take them from not close to a playoff spot to a playoff regular. If you’re building a team and you can’t get that franchise centre, then in my mind you need most, but likely all your centres to have great two-way ability. I believe that’s the only way teams can win if they lack a franchise centre. These type of centres and defencemen aren’t sexy in the slightest, but FUCK ME they are vital to a hockey clubs success. And you can never have enough of either.
My basic rule (and it’s not really “my” rule, it’s more so “the” rule) is that playmakers can play with playmakers, snipers can’t play with snipers. It doesn’t mean that every playmaker is going to mesh, and it doesn’t mean that high volume shooters can’t ever figure out how to play with each other, but for the most part this is how it works. And in today’s game, as much as it’s a speed game, it’s a playmakers game too. Due to the lack of physicality and the league becoming increasingly smaller, we’re seeing fewer and fewer playmakers playing on the perimeter as we did 10-15 years ago, and therefore they are able to have their way a lot more than they used to.
Types of players I’m not as high on
The guy I have gotten a bit of hit for not liking as much as others in last years draft was Cole Caufield. I didn’t hate Caufield by any means, having him 16th overall isn’t something I view as a big slight. But it was lower, especially in comparison to independent scouting. I’m bigger on the viewings than the numbers, but the lack of assist numbers given the centres he had to play with all of last season (three of whom were top 10 picks) was extremely concerning to me and I’m not sure how anyone can suggest his vision is high-end when the kid only had 44 assists in 99 games playing with kids like Hughes, Turcotte and Zegras is not good. A lot of people want to compare him with Alex Debrincat given their stature, nationality, and skating ability. Debrincat never had concerns with his playmaking ability, and I’m personally not going to give extra points to the exception to the rule over of the rule. Of course with Caufield, I strongly believe that many independent guys want to be so “anti-establishment” that they purposely overate those players so that they won’t be viewed as the guy who “overlooked” the undersized kid. Point being here that with me, don’t ever expect shoot first, second, third, fourth, etc type guys who can’t do much else to be too high in my rankings.
Undersized AND slower
I often call this “size to speed ratio”. I would have whiffed on Alex DeBrincat (I had him 43rd in my top 50 going into the 2016 draft). But the fact is that DeBrincat is an exception to the rule. Now, perhaps a kid like Cole Caufield (a lot of DeBrincat and Caufield stuff in here, but I just think they’re two great players to use as examples) will be another exception to that rule, easy could be. But I got a lot of flack for having Caufield 16th last season when it seemingly became a game of “how high can we rank him to prove we don’t undervalue undersized guys”. The fact is that at 16 I’m still saying I believe he can play in the league and put up 20-30 goals a year, but I also believe he’s far from a lock to do so and if he can’t do that, then he’s not playing in the NHL. If Matthew Boldy (for example) can’t do that, there are still lots of other roles Mattew Boldy can fill. It’s also much tougher to find Matthew Boldy if you pass on him. The Toronto Maple Leafs got Nick Robertson in the 2nd round. Robertson and Caufield at the time of writing this, aren’t too different as prospects. Both are highly skilled, but they don’t have great wheels AND they’re undersized. If they’re both burners, I have very little issue. The skating is much more the issue than the size. But if a guy has size and can’t skate, they still have the reach to do protect the puck extremely well and the ability to wear down opposing players where that is much more difficult for undersized guys to do if they don’t have the skating.
Now, after I take into consideration everything I just laid out, then I still take a lot of other things into consideration. The reason for this is because I try to look at things like a GM would, not how a person who isn’t drafting these player would do so.
You have wants and you have needs when you’re building hockey teams, and this is where I believe so many people mess up how they rank their players. People WANT guys like Ovechkin, Stamkos, Matthews, etc. But teams don’t NEED those guys to win. To win, teams need high end centres and top four D-men. It’s tricky doing independent rankings though because I can easily do a list for every team in the league, and those lists for each team would be vastly different. I’ve used Cole Caufield as an example lots (and negatively to this point) but here we go again. While I would have had Caufield lower for most teams, I actually liked him a lot for the Oilers. The reason being that the Oilers could play him down the line with McDavid or Draisaitl, which is what he needs. He needs (in my opinion) to play with a centre who can do nearly everything and allow him to find the dead spots offensively and utilize his shot. Right now he’s with Montreal…who is the centre they have either on the team or in the system who can do that for him? Every team goes BPA. But this is why the BPA’s can be so different for each team. And for those people who then scream “just pick the best player and make trades for fit later”, have you been paying attention the last decade? Trades aren’t happening anymore. Especially hockey trades. Team building has to be a massive consideration.
More people are using tiers now than when I first started doing my own rankings in 2015 which is good to see. You must have a pretty damn big ego on yourself if you think that tiers aren’t necessary. The fact of the matter is that with most prospects we are splitting hairs, and therefore you draft whichever player within a tier is the biggest need for your organization.
It is a term I came up with prior to last years draft. What do I mean? Let me give you the best example: Matt Tkachuk was rare. Matt Tkachuk should have gone higher in his draft than 6th. He should have been 2nd overall in hindsight. I had him 5th, but I kick myself because when he was eligible, I knew that he was a rare type of player for a team to get their hands on. And that is huge for me. Kirby Dach gets taken 3rd overall in the 2019 draft. Why? So many people think this is a ridiculous pick, Chicago reached, on and on and on. In the rest of the 2019 draft, you know what you without a doubt were not going to find? A 6’4, RH shot, playmaking centre who moves well. In free agency, you know what you are extremely rarely going to find? A 6’4, RH shot, playmaking centre who moves well. In the trade market, you know what you are extremely rarely going to find? A 6’4, RH shot, playmaking centre who moves well. Rare is massive, and hardly anyone thinks in those terms when they do their rankings. Most who do independent rankings don’t give any thought to rounds 2-7 or assembling a roster in general. “Acquireability” is so big for me, and the more of that which teams can find in the draft, the easier it’ll be for them to fill out the rest of their roster.
Some of you reading all this (and thank you if you’re still reading as I’m over 4,000 words on this) might think about the draft as the top 10/15/20/1st round in general. And that’s fine. But the reality is that the draft is seven rounds. It’s about to be 224 picks. So when you get down to pick 66, 106, 146, 206, etc then you’re looking at guys who are going to take 3-5 years to develop. I want those guys to have one thing they do extremely well. Take your pick of the trait, but they need to have at least one.
Ok, I think I’m done…finally! This is likely a blog that I’m going to add to, subtract from, basically adjust a lot over the years as it’s meant to be a bit of a guideline for how I do my rankings. You can disagree with them all you want, but at least I can point to this blog and say “this is why my rankings are like that”. And even though there are many people who do rankings who I find myself disagreeing with what they’ll have to say, all I ask is you can back it up. That’s it. Just back up what you’re saying. Nearly everyone puts out a list, and the list has nothing on the players. And I’m often raising an eyebrow at those lists because while some just don’t have the time, I believe most (independents) simply don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Maybe I don’t either. But at least now you can see where I’m coming from whether you agree with it or not.
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