Sometimes, it’s hard to nail down what makes a hockey player so special. Usually, it’s easy to point to the contributions a player makes — whether in relation to scoring, puck handling, or physicality. It’s also not uncommon to see certain players who gel seamlessly with their team, creating beautiful and dangerous movement on the ice.
But other times, hockey skills look more like signs of genius. They can be harder to quantify, with only fellow pros and analysts able to articulate the ‘magic’. For example, think of hockey like a card game such as poker. Those who first start out need to learn the basics before starting: from rules to vocabulary to etiquette, some of the things they need to know if they want to advance on to more nuanced skills like tactical strategy and bluffing. It’s not enough for a poker pro to simply cover the basics in the hopes of improving. As they advance with their skills, they’ll shift to focus on quick decision-making, reading other players, and having a sense of when to go all-in. The same is true for hockey players with a touch of genius — except they’re making split-second decisions all while flying down the ice.
When it comes to the most prolific legends in the NHL, which skills are actually signs of this type of hockey genius? Here are the top five characteristics, as recounted by the top players competing today.
Each player prefers a different type of stick, along with a preferred method of handling them. Some are truly prolific, like Mark Stone and Brayden Point. They’re known for being able to tuck in the puck. Others, like Nick Schmaltz, are incredible pickpockets because of their stick skills.
In the case of Schmaltz, he’s not just good at slipping the puck away, but doing it cleanly. Part of that ability is reading players and being able to sneak up behind them, taking advantage of a blind spot.
Various pros have also hinted that escaping a board battle is an enviable skill in the NHL — and a little-recognized aspect of hockey genius. Auston Matthews, in particular, is hailed for being able to slip away from a scrape in the boards despite his size.
So, what do other pros, like Alex DeBrincat, chalk this up to? It’s not brawn, but intelligence. Rather than put himself into a defensive position when picking up a puck at the board, Matthews and other board battle champions can slip away with offensive moves.
Goals in hockey are small and pucks are even smaller. This makes a player’s ability to move in front of the net and sneak in a goal indispensable. For some, it’s also an indicator of genius. Brady Tkachuk was named as a top competitor for his ability to tip pucks, get his body free, and make connections in front of the defense-heavy area — especially when the cross-checks start flying.
Some might call this skill hockey sense or processing speed. Awareness boils down to a player’s ability to recognize what’s happening on the rink before other players, then leverage that advantage quickly.
Multiple players, including Jacob Trouba and Charlie McAvoy, named Adam Fox as the champion of awareness. This is the player that sees how a play will form, then advance. In keeping with the poker example above, this is when a player is able to call bluffs, then restructure their own tactics to leverage another player’s bluff.
Clearly, understanding is a fundamental part of hockey genius — especially for leaders who are responsible for staying in position and giving the team shape. But there’s one step beyond awareness, which made pros like Wayne Gretzky all-time legends, and have put role-heavy players like Riley Nash on the charts: vision.
A player with awareness can predict how the game will shift, but a player with vision will also be able to put themselves in the right position for a breakaway and lateral moves by avoiding hits and staying slippery. For these players, it’s not about being the fastest or the strongest — it’s about understanding what’s happening across the ice at all times.