Over the weekend, 17 Minnesotans were selected in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft – three in the first round for the first time since 2010.
But what sets guys like Casey Mittelstadt (selected at No. 8 overall by the Buffalo Sabres), Ryan Poehling (selected at No. 25 by the Montreal Canadiens) or Jake Oettinger (No. 26 by the Dallas Stars) apart of the rest? What makes them stand out?
“There are a lot of factors that go into why these players are elite,” said Pat Westrum, Minnesota Hockey’s District 6 Coach-in-Chief and amateur scout for the Montreal Canadiens.
Westrum, a retired professional player himself, has watched and evaluated countless players around the world. He regales us on what exactly an NHL scout looks for in a player, and offers tips on how to bring your game to that level.
Skating, Skating, Skating
The difference between a good hockey player and a great one can often be seen in his or her skating ability. A player’s quickness, agility, power and balance are on full display at all times in the professional ranks, and well before.
“That quick start on the ice can be everything,” Westrum said. “Not so much when they’re younger, but as they get older they should really be working on the plyometric stuff, a lot of jumping and hopping.”
For younger players at 8U and 10U, balance and coordination are the main keys. Games of tag, agility or obstacle courses all promote strength in speed and skating while keeping the important element of fun. At 12U, off-ice drills and exercises can be mixed in with all on-ice skating drills to improve leg strength and optimize power when on the ice.
Westrum notes that just because you make the A team or varsity or even the pros, that doesn’t mean the work stops. Even players Zach Parise and Nick Leddy are constantly working on skating.
“Skating is a skill that should be continuously worked on,” Westrum said. “It’s a skill that can always be improved.”
Work Ethic and Character
A player that is willing to give 100 percent every game, shift, practice and drill is well preferred over a player who coasts through the motions, no matter the skill and talent level.
“I always tell the younger kids, you’ve got to play hard every game and every shift,” said Westrum. “When you get to be 16 years old, there are people that are watching and coming in to the area that don’t come in often. If you have a bad game, it’s sometimes hard to get back in the good graces, so you want to be as consistent as possible in your effort.”
And be sure to watch how you’re acting on and off the ice, too. Getting upset on the bench over a bad play or call will be noticed by those with clipboards in the crowd.
“Your body language says a lot about your character, good or bad,” he said. “If you’re banging your stick or shaking your shoulders at something the coach or official said, that’s not a good sign either as far as viewing a player.”
Does it matter that you weren’t an A-player beginning at 8U and all the way up to the pros? According to Westrum, “absolutely not.”
New York Rangers and Olympian Ryan McDonagh didn’t make the A team his first year as a Squirt. While all of Minnesotans selected in the 2017 NHL Draft participated in the CCM High Performance (“HP”) programs at some point, not all of them experience success right away. In fact, Mittelstadt, who was the first American taken in this year’s draft, didn’t make his district team during HP 15 tryouts.
“The team I coached in Apple Valley that won the state tournament, every one of those kids played C hockey at one time and they slowly developed their way up,” Westrum said. “We don’t look at what they did when they were 13, 14, 15 years old. We have to judge what they are going to be able to do as they get older.”
For Westrum, knowing the game can say more than just playing the game.
“Hockey sense is right up there near the top of important skills,” he said. “Knowing how to play the game and the anticipation. Knowing what space to go to and what space to take away, time and space.
“You have to be able to have the vision to look and see what’s going on behind you and what’s in front of you. Some players, they just don’t see that. They shoot or pass into shin pads where the high-end guys know when to chip it off the boards. They have to be able to see what’s going on and be able to move the puck quickly.”
According to Westrum, the biggest difference in kids today is the lack of multisport athletes.
“Kids today are only playing one sport and they’re not learning how to play other sports,” said Westrum. “Let’s say you play tennis, you have to run up and down, visualize where to hit the ball. In baseball, it’s about cutting off the ball in the outfield and running back. Football you have a similar physicality to hockey and lacrosse – it’s all about hand-eye coordination.
“Ultimately, they all come back to a sport sense and being able to understand so you can see what’s going to happen.”
Kids need a break from hockey. Scouts are seeing the perils of early specialization.
“A lot of our kids are starting at 9 or 10 years old playing just one sport and they are using the same muscles over and over,” he added. “You can see that exhausting physically and mentally in players. In the long run, it doesn’t work out.”
Ultimately Westrum wants to remind players and parents that it’s not easy to make it to the NHL. It is easy to be the best player that you can be at every level – and to have fun!
“The NHL is a great dream to have and a great goal to reach for,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not the only goal to reach for. Play hockey because you love to play. Don’t worry about making it a career when you’re little.”
Minnesota Hockey an affiliate of USA Hockey, is the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in Minnesota and the premier developer of hockey players in the state.