Life as a National Hockey League scout can be a challenge at times, and no season-plus-off-season has been quite as complicated as this one. The 2020 NHL Entry Draft was originally scheduled to be held on June 26-27 in Montreal, but with the NHL revamping its schedule to host the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the timing of this year’s draft is firmly up in the air.
Despite the logistical uncertainties of the upcoming Draft, one thing that hasn’t changed is the way scouts evaluate talent and the qualities they look for in top prospects.
“They certainly have to have a skill set that will give them a chance down the road to play in the NHL,” said Vegas Golden Knights Amateur Scout Keith Hendrickson. “But we also want players with character. We don’t want characters.”
Hendrickson, a former University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldog and long-time coach at Virginia High School, offered his perspectives on what pro scouts are looking for, and how prospects can improve their chances of getting on a team’s draft day radar.
Minnesota Hockey: This is an unusual time for young players and their parents. Some of the better players are probably feeling some FOMO (fear of missing out), in terms of opportunities to showcase their talents to both college and pro scouts. What would you say to them as they’re thinking about the future?
Keith Hendrickson: Everybody is in the same boat, so there’s no reason to get too uptight about things you have no control over. For young people who have aspirations of a college or pro opportunity, you still have time to keep improving, especially with gyms opening up and kids starting to skate. Keep going after it and don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just focus on being the best you can be. If a kid isn’t working out now, it’s because they’ve made the choice not to, which probably means they aren’t a great prospect.
Minnesota Hockey: How would you recommend players use this time to train and develop?
Hendrickson: No matter where you train, for me, it’s about training to becoming a better athlete. The better the athlete you are, the more upside you will likely have as a player as you get older. Focus on overall athleticism and things like explosive speed and agility as opposed to seeing how much you can bench press. And avoid too much sports specialization, which at a younger age can be detrimental. Play soccer, tennis, basketball, baseball. I coached Matt Niskanen in high school and he was a great football and baseball player, as well as hockey. Do some water skiing or wakeboarding. Do some things that may be uncomfortable and have fun and be a better athlete. Basketball is a great crossover game for a lot of reasons. If you’re a really good hockey player sometimes it’s not a bad idea to play another sport where you’re not as good and see what that’s like. You may have to work harder. It’s good to see what that’s like, not being “the guy.” There are a lot of benefits that are intangible that you can’t always measure.
Minnesota Hockey: What are the most important things NHL scouts are looking for when evaluating players both on and off ice?
Hendrickson: On the ice, it could be a variety or a combination of things – skating, puck handling, size, hockey sense, compete level. There are many different ways to contribute to a team beyond being the leading scorer and different skill sets can contribute to different roles at the next level. The hardest part is projecting what kind of player they’ll be five years down the road. It’s not an exact science. You watch and learn about a player as much as you can. You interview them, teammates, coaches, opposing players and try to get to know them better. You want to know what they’re like as players and people, how hard they work, are they punctual, are they respectful in the room and away from the rink. Skill is important, but if you don’t have the right attitude and work ethic, you won’t have the chance to maximize that skill. Character is a huge thing for us.
Minnesota Hockey: Minnesota consistently produces a great deal of top talent year after year. Why do you think that is?
Hendrickson: The community-based model is a huge factor. First, it lessens some of the financial burden. If you go out to the East Coast and your son or daughter wants to play on a top team, it could cost them a fortune as a 12-year-old. The community-based model gives kids the opportunity to keep playing and developing and improving. Even if they don’t make a team their first year, they can try again next year and in the interim, get good, quality ice time and coaching and play because they love the game. Kids also look up to the older kids in their communities. This is especially true in smaller communities across the state. If the older kids have a good experience and programs develop good players and competitive teams, the younger kids’ goal will be to play on those teams when they get older. The model is the best in the country for development.
Minnesota Hockey: How important is patience in player development?
Hendrickson: Kids develop at different ages. Just because a player is good at 12 doesn’t mean they’ll be good at 17. While every situation is different, for most kids most of the time, I don’t see the benefit to trying to race too fast. I tell people all the time, players and parents, enjoy your journey, because you may not have your choice on the destination. Most people remember their buddies and the locker room and yes, some of the games. But it’s about the journey and everything that happens – working out, helping teammates, committing to a team. Those things are huge.
There’s always the rare kid that accelerating development works well for. But the potential downside usually outweighs the upside. There’s nothing wrong with being really good at a level before moving up. That’s how you gain confidence and learn how to carry responsibility and be a leader. There’s a lot of benefit to just being the best you can be at the level you’re at. If you’re good enough, the colleges and pro teams will find you. When we’re looking at an 18-year-old, we don’t care where he played as a Peewee or how many goals he scored when he was 10. So why rush the process?