Team Canada's Jordan Eberle scored with 5.4 seconds left against Russia to tie the semifinal game of the World Junior Championship. Eberle also scored in the shootout won by Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
“Players are better conditioned and stronger at a younger age, so you’re really starting to find players who are more complete physically than maybe they were 20 years ago.” – Western Conference scout.
Since the 1980s plenty has changed in the NHL. Cooperalls went in and out of fashion, hockey hair went from exuberant to mostly conservative and player salaries launched from six digits to seven, or even eight.
Lots of change has swept through the league off the ice, but there’s no denying there’s been a fair amount of redefinition on the ice as well. So how has this evolution affected the art of prospect projection?
“The biggest thing we’re looking for now is hockey sense,” said one well-traveled Western Conference scout. “Playing the game smart, making your game easy because you’re an intelligent player and are in position to adjust and react quickly because of your understanding of the game. That makes your game easier on a day-to-day basis and helps you overcome any deficiencies in other areas because you’re an intuitive hockey player.”
Rule changes, especially since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, have opened up lanes and opportunities for a different kind of player to thrive and be considered among the elite in his draft year. It’s been well-documented how small, speedy, skilled players are more of a premium than a long shot now. One scout mentioned how Theo Fleury – an eighth round selection in 1987 – would be a Jordan Eberle-like first-rounder today, so the definition of a hot prospect has certainly changed with time.
Perhaps this renewed desire and focus for a player with great hockey sense is a result of the systematic approach coaches have made integral to the NHL game today. There’s no denying some players on the cusp of making the NHL now may not have even had an opportunity in North America 20 years ago.
“For instance, Dale Derkatch (a seventh round pick in 1983), those kinds of players, who were great players in junior, but never made it,” said one scout. “There’s a bevy of players that maybe ended up playing in Europe in years past, where they would have played in the NHL now just because, while they had the skill and the speed, they just weren’t big enough.”
Not only has the game itself changed, but the places prospects sprout from have branched out all over the world. Europe is a popular place to find a new wave of stars, but don’t underestimate the impact a budding American influence is having.
“Hockey’s just bursting at the seams in youth hockey in the U.S., and you’re getting a lot more players in USA Hockey,” one scout mentioned. “There’s more players coming out of their national team programs, there’s more Div. I college schools and players are spread out on more teams, where it used to be more concentrated. You have a bigger pool of players, so you need to have a bigger staff so you have more opinions and more ideas involved in making your decision.”
The amount of 18-, 19- and 20-year-old players making the jump to the NHL has made for a younger league, but just because more of these guys are graduating earlier, the philosophy on handling younger players hasn’t changed drastically.
Obviously with the salary cap it might be more fiscally responsible to have a young player on your team making significantly less coin than a veteran who might bring the same kind of production to your team. But as one scout said, if you take one look at the top teams in the league, you won’t come across too many of these youngsters. Though the players are better conditioned and more prepared for the NHL now than they used to be, it’s still not always the best decision to rush along a prospect.
“I think you’re more willing to look at the situation, but I don’t think anybody, really, really, really wants to play an 18-year-old,” explained a scout. “If you’re a team in transition and growing and developing you might use an 18-year-old. I think (rushing young players up to the NHL) has to do with the fact there’s 30 teams now and they want to get their younger players in quicker. Plus, when you’re lower on the totem pole on where you finish, (it’s) more likely you’ll make changes and younger players don’t make as much money.”
Players are simply stronger, faster, better conditioned and more prepared at a young age than they were in generations past and that will certainly continue to be the case moving forward.
As the NHL continues to re-invent itself and expand its horizons, the type of player it brings along with it will have to adapt to be effective. The over-arching theme and approach to analyzing talent hasn’t changed to a great degree, but with a new style brings a new desire for a certain type of player.
And that aspect will always be evolving.
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A Scout's Life is a look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. We'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation. A Scout's Life will appear bi-weekly through the playoffs until the NHL draft.