This NHL offseason has been full of an unusual amount of cynicism, thanks to the ongoing CBA negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA. Every discussion about what might happen next season has to immediately be tempered with “if there is a next season,” which is an immediate buzz kill. The offseason is meant to be a time of optimism, when fans of even the worst team in the league can look forward to the upcoming season with hope and expectation. Anything can happen, after all.
Fortunately, there’s still one area where hockey fans seem to have eternal optimism: prospects. Almost every hockey fan holds out hope that one of their favourite team’s prospects is going to turn into an all-star – centring the top-line, manning the point on the first-unit powerplay, or backstopping the team to victory. While you do get the occasional Debbie Downer who despairs that their GM will find even a fourth-line winger through the draft, most fans emphasize the positive when looking at their team’s prospect pool and downplay the negative.
This emphasis usually takes the form of stating what can’t be taught.
The most common variation on the theme of what can’t be taught is “You can’t teach size.” Every time a hulking defenceman or power forward with limited mobility and skill gets drafted, GMs, experts, and fans trot out the same phrase: “You can’t teach size.” It was said of Dylan McIlrath, when the Rangers picked him 10th overall over Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley, who are a few inches shorter and lack his mean streak, in the 2010 draft.
McIlrath has size, physicality, and a great shot on his side, but has flaws elsewhere in his game, such as his skating and offensive skills. But, “You can’t teach size.” I’m not intending to bash McIlrath, by any means, as by all accounts he’s shaping up to be a solid stay-at-home defenceman with the added bonus of being a potential weapon on the point for the powerplay. I’m just fascinated by the way we talk about prospects.
When a prospect has great wheels, people will say “You can’t teach speed.” Back when Michael Grabner was a prospect for the Vancouver Canucks, all fans could talk about was his blinding speed, to the point that people actually compared him to Pavel Bure. Like, actual people that I met, who said this to my face, and expected me not to laugh at them. As recently as last season, Islanders’ head coach Jack Capuano said, “You can’t teach the speed and deception he has.”
It goes without saying that Grabner is not Bure. By focussing purely on his speed, it’s easy to lose sight of what he lacks, namely the ability to consistently finish around the net. That’s not to say Grabner’s a bad player, but focussing on what he has that can’t be taught is putting on blinders.
Other variations include “You can’t teach soft hands,” “You can’t teach vision,” and “You can’t teach hockey IQ.” Essentially, “You can’t teach *blank*” seems to just be a way to optimistically focus on a prospect’s best aspects, while minimizing their weaknesses by assuming that they can learn or be taught whatever is missing.
“You can’t teach *blank*” is usually matched with what can be taught: a player can work on his skating, develop his shot, round out his defensive game, or learn whatever else might be missing from their game. Even size is considered mutable: recently-drafted prospects, whether short or tall, are frequently sent away with the instructions to bulk up and fill out their frame.
At its most literal, you obviously can’t teach size, particularly height. Genetics are genetics, after all. At the same time, size is arguably the thing that most prospects can most easily change. With the right amount of time spent in the weight room with the right regimen in place, most prospects are able to increase their core strength and put on more mass. Every year, it seems that many of the prospects, particularly the youngest ones, come into training camp having added 10-20 pounds to their frame.
When it comes to skating and offensive skills, however, some players never seem to learn. Or, if they do improve, it’s not a significant enough improvement for the NHL. The player whose skating is questionable in major junior might get faster and smoother, only to find out that the level of skating required for the NHL has increased at the same pace. The player who improves his puckhandling to the point that he’s able to dangle past AHL defenders finds his hands turn to stone as soon as NHL defenders take his time and space away.
Ultimately, it can all be taught. The issue is that learning takes time. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule from his book Outlier is fundamentally flawed – some people are just smarter, faster, and more talented than others – there is also some fundamental truth to it. Put simply, he claims it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Sidney Crosby has a great backhand because he spent hours upon hours from an early age developing it. He’s good at everything else in hockey for the same reason, along with a healthy dollop of good genes and a seeming natural aptitude for the game.
Grabner is fast because he’s spent hours upon hours refining his skating stride and developing his quick-burst muscle fibres. McIlrath is a big dude because he’s spent hours upon hours working out to develop the muscle strength that makes his 6’5″ frame meaningful on the ice.
There are certain levels of ability such that if a prospect hasn’t reached them by the time they’re drafted into the NHL, they’ll probably never learn. At the very least, they’ll manage to be average. Fortunately, they’ll have what can’t be taught to fall back on.