Discover more from Shap Shots
On Messi, McDavid, scanning, and better defining "hockey sense"
Some thoughts on how the best hockey player in the world is actually the best hockey player in the world.
Like a good portion of sports fans, I’ve spent this summer watching the Lionel Messi experiment in the MLS.
This is my jam, I’m a big soccer guy. So it was always going to be fascinating watching one of the greatest players of all time, months removed from hoisting the World Cup, competing in a league that is probably 15th or 16th best in the world.
But watching Messi play for Inter Miami, on prime time in the United States, coupled with his recent World Cup performance in Qatar, has been a good reminder of why he’s so brilliant. Messi is fast and skilled, but it’s his ability to impact a game mentally that turned him into the best player in the world.
As brilliant soccer minds have pointed out, Messi walks around during the game. He looks like he’s strolling through the park, more of a spectator with a backstage pass than a conductor. But throughout those strolls his head is always active, he’s scanning the field constantly, often taking five checks of his surroundings within the prior 10 seconds before receiving the ball.
The video below, which is quite good, points out the average Premier League forward (in my view the best league in the world) only scans 2.8 times in the 10 seconds before receiving the ball.
This connects to hockey. I promise.
Now let’s talk about the best hockey player on the planet, Connor McDavid.
McDavid is one of the fastest humans on the planet in any discipline. His top speed of just under 25 miles per hour on skates, is comparable to Usain Bolt’s top sprinting speed of 27.96 MPH.
If you want to go down a fun YouTube wormhole, like I did, just watch McDavid’s speed and how he looks like that create-a-player in a video game where you maxed out the speed.
Shap Shots is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
But McDavid’s speed, and the chaos of hockey, make it hard to appreciate how Messi-esque he is in his breakdown of the game.
Hockey and soccer are very different. One has much larger spatial confines, slower build-up, and natural lulls where a player, like Messi, can walk around and scan the environment.
It’s harder to track McDavid’s scanning, because it doesn’t happen as publicly as Messi swiveling his neck on his own in the middle of a soccer field.
There’s a great video where you can watch every single point McDavid registered this past season. If you want to spend more than 30 minutes of your day doing so, I would suggest also taking time during viewing to watch McDavid’s head.
You’ll notice how often in the build-up to a play, McDavid scans the ice. Because of the nature of highlights, and the limitations of hockey broadcasts — more on that some other day — it’s hard to truly track the number of shoulder checks and pivots McDavid makes, but it was also hard to find a play where he didn’t check the surface at least twice before engaging.
I tried to find a good video, like the Messi one, where someone had broken it down. Unfortunately I couldn’t, but I did come across this clip where Bob McKenzie brings up that a different type of scan, a brain scan, reveals that McDavid takes in in-game information similar to NFL running back Christian McCaffrey.
We mentioned before that hockey and soccer are different. In soccer, a top player is on the field for all 90 minutes (typically), in the NHL, even the best players spend a majority of the game on the bench.
Back in June I spent three days at a coaching school, where a number of NHL head coaches spoke, including Edmonton Oilers assistant Glen Gulutzan.
(You can read more about this below.)
One of the things I picked up on and learned from the coaching school, and talking to other coaches at the conference, was how top players utilize their time on the bench. In Edmonton, McDavid is a constant scanner, talking to both coaches that have worked with him and teammates, they note how dialed in he is with the current happenings on the ice.
It’s a reasonable assumption that’s why McDavid jump starts shifts better than most players. Yes, he has all-world speed, but McDavid never has wasted energy in his approach and path into the play, he’s scanned the moving environment enough times to know when and where to attack immediately.
Hockey coaches try to teach and often discuss, “hockey sense” ad nauseam. And I think, thanks to Messi and McDavid, I finally have a better personal definition going into 2023-24 season. It’s not a “unique knack” or just a “feeling” for the game — which I might have used in the past — “hockey sense” is information processing speed on ice, thousands of micro-decisions being played out instantaneously for better or worse.
Better decisions are made by those who account for everything, those who play the game in their head and can translate it to the actual physical tools with their hands and feet.