There's just no substitute for hockey sense.
My hunch is, minor league coaches would attest to that. From the AHL on down, there's barely a team in those leagues where you couldn't find a guy that fits the description "boy he's talented. How come he never made it?"
At this point in his career, John Tavares(notes) of the New York Islanders doesn't exactly possess any one raw skill in spades. He isn't all that fast, his shots not all that heavy, and he's not all that big. And he just scored a hat-trick on Saturday against the Florida Panthers, giving him five goals in five games. The kid can just straight think it.
I came up through the WCHA at a time when the conference was churning out some real talent: Paul Stastny(notes), Joe Pavelski(notes), Thomas Vanek(notes), Zach Parise(notes) and about 40 other names highly deserving of NHL respect. (Please note I am NOT on that list.)
Yet somehow, the most impressive player I skated against -- Robbie Earl(notes) -- has played 250 games in the minors, and just 41 in the NHL. It's not that he's completely devoid of hockey sense; there are just other, less-gifted players that have thought their way to a higher level of success. Which must be frustrating to watch.
Stastny and Pavelski are perfect examples of players who get it done because they see the game better than people with more talent (they're plenty talented, but that's not why they're millionaires). Much like Tavares, they seem to see all 10 skaters on the rink at all times, and stay a page ahead of the book.
Knowing where to be and who to use is like turning the difficulty down on a video game. It just looks easy for them.
It's a thin between making the NHL and not. There's very little difference between players like Mason Raymond(notes) (Vancouver Canucks) and Robbie Earl (Houston), Blake Wheeler(notes) (Boston Bruins) and Danny Irmen(notes) (Italy), Matt Greene(notes) (Los Angeles Kings) and Drew Fata(notes) (Wilkes-Barre). There are great players scattered throughout difference leagues around the world sitting up at night checking talent comparables in the NHL and wondering why it never quite panned out.
The problem for scouts is, "hockey sense," is sort of a nebulous quality to define. It's why the only true test of who's good at hockey is who's good at hockey. It's why I wanted the Islanders to draft Tavares -- you don't accidentally score that many goals in junior, despite the reviews of his quickness and size.
We're all aware of the importance of size (John Scott(notes) is in the NHL) and speed (Darren Helm(notes) can barely control his), so we measure those things. We like to test the players to find out who can lift he most weight, who can jump the highest, who's the most flexible.
But all those things are secondary to whatever-it-was that Gretzky had. That guy looked so frail I'm surprised he could raise the puck, yet he occasionally contributed in the offensive end.
My junior coach called it the "dumb kid at hockey school" test: He'd line the team up, ring a puck around the boards, and watch the angle guys would take to pick it up. It was awesome watching the amount of players that would underestimate the rim and chase it alllll the way around the boards, instead of taking the short route to cut it off farther up.
And when you sandwich the ‘Dumb Kid at Hockey School's' hockey mind into the body of someone with NHL skills, well, you get one hell of a frustrating AHL player.
For me, when I watch the NHL today, I'm focusing on Tavares, Stastny, Pavelski and their ilk. An NHL surface is a minefield, in which I'd almost certainly get blown up by some big bruising defensemen. But those guys effortlessly weave through danger, and somehow end up tapping in a goal that made someone at home go, "I coulda buried that."
Well, sure, but you wouldn't have been standing there.
The game gets bigger and faster every year, yet the most important tools still aren't size or speed. Having hockey sense is more important than ever.