With the draft coming up on Sunday there has been a lot of talk about the type of players the Oilers should draft. Rookie general manager Craig MacTavish has said he is very interested in acquiring more skill through the draft. I wonder if that is the best approach to build a winning team.
I can’t argue that the most important asset a hockey player can have is skill. Without it he will not be able to play at a high level even if he possesses all the other requirements of a NHL player.
In my opinion a very, very close second is character. Skill without character is useless. I would rather have a player with character and less skill then the other way around. I think there is misconception of what character means in a hockey player.
Too often I hear that a team can "just pick a character player up on waivers when they need one". I love it. It makes it sounds like they are going down to the mall to pick up a black pair of shoes that will make a whole outfit work! Makes zero sense to me.
Yes there are players who are referred to as "character players". It seems to me that these are players that do some of the dirtier tasks for a team. Blocking shots, finishing checks, killing penalties and fighting are examples of what people who are "character players" do for teams.
These are important elements to have on a winning club. However, if a team is hoping that these types of players are enough character for a whole team they are kidding themselves.
Players with character vs. character players
Players with character are required throughout the line-up.
Unfortunately it is pretty hard to quantify character with stats. I guess you could look at blocked shots and hits but to me that just points at the types of players that are often referred to as "character players". How do you figure out if the rest of your players have character who aren’t big on those two stats?
We just saw a perfect example in this Stanley Cup Final. Jonathan Toews put on a clinic on what character is all about. The Hawks were having trouble getting to the net with the Bruins line-up of bigger defensemen and centers.
They were having trouble with it because they didn’t want to pay the price in the first few games of the series. Would you want to try and go to the net when a mountain of a nasty man is standing between you and the net? You could literally see the change in the Hawks mindset in the last few games of the series.
Toews led the charge by going right at the Bruins captain, Zdeno Chara. No longer was Toews going to let Chara dictate how he or his team was going to play. How many times did you see the smaller Toews battling with the much bigger Chara for loose pucks in the corners and front of the net in the last two games of the series? All the time!
He didn’t do it because he was trying to get on the stat sheet with hits, he did it because he knew that in order to win he had to battle the biggest and best the Bruins had to offer. He couldn’t avoid it. His character shined through.
He did what was needed to win even though he knew the effort and pain that were required.
That is character. He isn’t a "character player.” He is a player with character.
Skilled players go through highs and lows of scoring goals. No NHL players score every night. If a skilled player is having an off night or is struggling scoring what are they contributing to the team’s success?
Skilled players with character find ways of helping the team during the lows of a season. They are very solid defensively at those times. Skate and attack the net to create opportunities for others. They become a part of the team’s overall success even when they are not having individual success.
At the Draft
It is clear to me that the Oilers need to add more players with character to their line-up this off season. The first chance they get is this weekend at the draft in New Jersey. Drafting players solely based on skill is not a recipe for success in my opinion.
It is not easy to identify character in draft eligible players. These guys are very young and their games are in full development mode but that is the challenge for scouting staffs across the NHL.
I know many teams look at players away from the rink. What is their lifestyle? How do they treat their billets (for junior-aged players) and teachers (for college players)? Do they put forth effort in off-ice training? Are they responsive to coaching? These are all questions that scouts try to get answered when they are pushing for their team to draft a specific player.
I think a great question to have answered would be this… what does the player do when no one is watching?
I want to know if he does extra after practice on the ice. Is he a guy that is working on his game without being asked? Is he a guy that watches video to improve? Is he a guy that goes to the gym without being asked or prodded?
These are the attributes I saw during my career in players that not only played in the NHL but contributed in a meaningful way to the success of a team on and off the ice.
Don’t ever underestimate the value of character in a player. It is a hair under skill in my opinion.