What you think it takes to make it to the big leagues and what it actually takes are two different things.
Sure, scoring goals and making beautiful ‘tap-in-ready’ passes can make you valuable in the eyes of scouts, but it’s not the only thing they look at…
They also look at the little details that no one else pays attention to.
And it’s those little details that make you stand out from other players.
So while your teammates are out there focusing entirely on how many points they can put up on the board, you’d be wise to incorporate as many of the ‘little details’ I share in this article as possible.
Focusing on these little details each time you step out onto the ice will make a difference.
I know, because they made a difference for me…
Back in 2005, I was drafted to the QMJHL as one out of a handful of minor midget players—about 95% of the players drafted that day were major midget players.
I didn’t get drafted because of my goals & assists—I had an above average season during my draft year, but nothing spectacular.
I got drafted because I did the little details better than the others.
Here are the little details you need to focus on in order to get to the next level in hockey.
1. First on puck
This is arguably the most important detail on the list. You have to want to be first on the puck at all times. You have to want it more than anyone else.
You have to be intense and ready to do whatever it takes to get to loose pucks before your opponents. If you’re a fast player, this should be easy for you. If you aren’t, make sure you work on your speed and acceleration as it helps you win races to the puck.
Scouts & coaches love players who can recover pucks—the more your team has the puck, the better your chance is of winning. It’s a simple yet overlooked aspect of hockey.
Get to pucks first no matter what, and you’ll be an asset to your team.
You have to be doing such a good job getting to pucks first that the other team thinks you’re everywhere on the ice.
If you had to choose one detail to pay attention to from this article, let it be this one.
2. Attack the net
Another important detail—scouts look for players who aren’t afraid to move their feet and take the puck to the net. They aren’t looking for what we call ‘perimeter players’.
Perimeter players are players that stay on the outside—they skate around the perimeter of the offensive zone instead of getting into the high scoring chance zones, like the high-slot and the front of the net.
Why? Because it hurts more.
When you attack the net, you’re going into the gritty area—you’ll get shoved, hit, slashed & cross-checked to slow you down and stop you from scoring.
It’s no fun at all, but coaches & scouts love to see players who don’t mind taking the puck to the high-traffic areas.
Don’t be the guy who stays along the boards and waits for a cross-ice pass or tries to take a low-quality shot from the outside.
Move your feet, use your body to protect the puck and attack the open space towards the net. Go in the high-traffic areas—you’ll create more scoring opportunities as a result, and scouts absolutely love players who attack the net.
And don’t be scared to screen the goalie when your defensemen have the puck at the blue-line—coaches and scouts love a player that isn’t scared to stay in front of the net, too!
3. Get Back
Another little detail that helps separate you from the pack is the intensity at which you back-check.
No matter how good you are offensively, you WILL NOT play at a high level if you’re a liability to your team defensively.
And that starts with an all-out back-check.
You don’t want to be dragging your feet or coasting during your back-check. You want to be giving it your all to get back in time to take away an opponent’s stick or even steal the puck.
Mike Babcock even credits some of Datsyuk’s offensive ability due to his defensive play—specifically how effective he is on the back-check.
Defense leads to offense—there’s no denying it. The harder you back-check, the more chances & opportunities you’ll create to attack the other way.
The next time the puck leaves the offensive zone, get your legs moving and get back as soon as you can to help out your team—you’ll stop more scoring chances against, recover more loose pucks that lead to transitional attacks, and you’ll also get more ice-time from coaches thanks to being reliable defensively.
And remember—you WILL NOT play at a competitive level if you’re a liability to your team defensively. This is high up on a scout or coach’s list when evaluating players, so paying attention to your back-check is a must.
4. Shot blocking
In line with your ability to back-check and play solid defense is your ability to block shots.
It’s a little detail you probably don’t pay much attention to. Many players just go through the motions and simply block shots if and when they can.
Did you know that some players in the NHL are there in part because they’re expert shot blockers? Sure, they play well defensively, but blocking shots increases their worth exponentially.
Think Francois Beauchemin, Josh Gorges, or Dan Girardi—all amazing shot blockers that are crucial parts of their respective teams.
These players block between 2 and 3 shots per game. Doesn’t sound like much right?
Here’s a hypothetical example to put things into perspective.
Take last year’s Blackhawks, for example. They averaged 2.27 goals against per game (186 in total), on an average of 30.2 shots against per game over an 82 game season (roughly 2476.4 shots against over the season).
That essentially means that 7.5% of shots against ended up being goals against. Assuming that the Hawks blocked 3 shots every game, what would happen if those shots actually made it through to the net?
That would be an extra 246 shots against on net (3 x 82).
The total shots against would the have been 2722.4.
If we keep the 7.5% of shots against that end up into goals, the Hawks would have had 204.18 goals scored against them over the entire season instead of 186.
That’s eighteen goals less. Still not a big number. But when you consider that oftentimes it’s only one goal that makes the difference between winning or losing, blocking shots has a significant impact on the outcome of games.
Don’t take shot blocking lightly. If you can become an expert at blocking shots and add it to your already solid defensive play, any team will want to have you.
After one of my games back when I was 15, my coach came to me and told me that there were scouts at the game that night. I had scored twice, but my coach told me they were more impressed with my 5 blocked shots and the turnovers I created on my back-checks.
From that day forward, I focused less on scoring goals and more on the little details that mattered. The rest took care of itself.
5. Finish 99% of your hits
Coaches & scouts love a player that finishes nearly all of his hits—the only time you shouldn’t finish your hit is if it takes you out of the play.
Every little hit counts. If you’re a winger, just bumping the opposing defenseman off the blue-line can mean the difference between your team clearing the puck out of your defensive zone or him getting back in time to stop the rim.
It’s a small detail, but it’s an extremely important one. In the big leagues, everyone finishes their hits, so you might as well get used to it at a young age.
By finishing hits, you’re essentially taking your opponent out of the play for a split-second. This does a ton of things for your team—it creates open space, it neutralizes odd-man rushes and creates favorable situations to attack.
And the best part is this—you’re already skating towards your opponent to put pressure on him…you might as well take him out of the play with a body-check.
You don’t have to kill the guy (although if you’re a good hitter then you’ll be even more valuable to your team), but just bumping him is enough to be effective.
Even skilled players finish their checks because they know how important it is. Hockey is a game of split-seconds, and every one of them counts. Get your opponent out of position for just a fraction of a second and good things start to happen.
6. Hard passes
Making hard passes is a must-have skill if you want to play at a higher level. If you’re currently an amateur player and you went to an NHL, AHL or even Major Junior practice, chances are you would have trouble catching even one pass.
Why? Because good players make hard passes.
It’s harder to intercept a pass if it’s hard & fast. If you make soft passes, you won’t last very long in more competitive leagues—your passes will lead to turnovers, and your turnovers will lead to less ice time.
The good part is that making hard passes isn’t even a skill—it’s just something you have to be conscious of. Make an effort to practice hard passes in practice. Ask your teammates to do the same so that you can practice receiving hard passes too (that’s hard in and of itself).
Being able to pass the puck at the right time in the right place is extremely important, and it all begins with working on your hard passes during practice.
There isn’t much to say here. Add hard passes to your game and you’ll improve almost overnight as a player—plain and simple.
7. Don’t turn the puck over
Last but not least—don’t turn the puck over.
Turn overs are the most dangerous plays in hockey. If you’re a player that turns the puck over often, you won’t make it very far in hockey regardless of how good your hands are, how fast you skate or how hard your shot is.
You need to eliminate turnovers from your game as much as possible. Coaches don’t like players who aren’t responsible with the puck, and scouts even less.
There’s an easy way to reduce turnovers—analyze the play and keep it simple.
Going in on a 1 versus 3? Don’t try and dangle. Chip the puck in and go and get it.
Too much pressure? Protect the puck with your body and wait for help instead of throwing it away.
Turnovers should rarely happen if you’re conscious of the game situation, what’s going on around you, where your teammates are and what your opponents are doing.
The two most important places to pay attention to in order to limit turnovers are the two blue-lines.
The reason is because the blue-lines are places where the game changes from offense to defense or vice-versa. During a turnover, players are caught going one way while the play is going the other way.
Limiting your turnovers at both blue-lines is something you should pay attention to. It’s not so bad losing the puck behind the net or in the corner of the offensive zone.
But lose it when trying to dangle the opposing defenseman at either blue-line, and your team is in trouble.
It’s the extra split-second it takes to recover from a turnover that’s dangerous—it creates odd-man rushes and scoring chances for your opponent.
When in doubt, chip the puck out (in your zone) or in (in the offensive zone). Use the glass so your opponent can’t block it with his body.
This is basic hockey sense 101, but it’s super important for limiting turnovers.
Scoring goals is nice…
But stick to these 7 little details and fit them into your game to really move the needle on your performances. Coaches will reward you with more ice time, and scouts will reward you with opportunities to play at a higher level.
What’s more, they aren’t things you need to work on for hours on end. They’re simple tweaks that you can implement as soon as your next game and start seeing results right away.
All it takes is effort, work ethic, and the right attitude to stick to these little details.
Getting into hard-to-score areas, blocking shots, and being first on puck all the time isn’t for everyone.
But if you can find a way to build these things into your game, you’ll be that much more of a complete player.