'Tough to describe': NHL players weigh in on what defines 'hockey sense'

Tage Thompson had one definition.

Leon Draisaitl offered a slightly different interpretation.

The same went for Troy Terry, Jack Hughes and a host of other NHL players.

Ask a locker room to define "hockey sense" — the nebulous term often thrown around to describe elite talent — and there's likely going to be a wide range of answers.

"Good read on the game," said Thompson, a centre for the Buffalo Sabres. "One of those things that's tough to describe ... it can cover a couple of different facets, but just the ability to read plays."

Draisaitl said for him, hockey sense is anticipating what's about to happen and reacting accordingly.

"Whether that's with the puck, whether that's without the puck," said the Edmonton Oilers star. "Guys that anticipate really, really well and know where the puck is going before it's actually going there."

Terry, a winger with the Anaheim Ducks, said players with good hockey sense rarely find themselves in stressful or potentially calamitous on-ice situations.

"They know where other guys are, they know when they are going to be in trouble with the puck before it happens," he said. "They never get hit, and it's because they know when it's coming.

"A lot of cerebral players in our league."

Also referred to as "hockey IQ" at times, hockey sense is something players often just know by seeing.

"Really good feel for the game, good instincts, knowing what play to make at what time in the game," said Hughes, a centre with the New Jersey Devils. "Finding players in open spots or a player without the puck finding a soft spot."

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano said being in those spots can be a key indicator.

"Very apparent when guys have all the speed and all the skill, but they never seem to get scoring chances or they never seem to put it together," said the NHL's oldest player this season at age 40. "And then you see guys who don't skate as well, and they're always in the right spot, they find a way to score and consistently be good players."

Giordano added knowing when to take chances is also part of the equation.

"Your team's up at the end of a period, probably not the best time to take your risk," he said. "Team's down, you can probably go. The elite guys know how to manage risk."

New York Rangers blueliner Adam Fox said that, unlike other sports, so much of hockey is fluid and reactionary.

And that plays into hockey sense.

"It's not like football where every play is different," he said. "You're not reading the defence pre-play. It's very in-the-moment of seeing situations and being able to assess them pretty quickly."

Connor Bedard's hockey sense was lauded ahead of the 2023 NHL draft, but he also can't quite put a finger on what it means.

"Making the right play, seeing what some other guys don't," said the 18-year-old Chicago Blackhawks centre. "But I don't know if you can define it. There's so many different ways of showing hockey sense."

Terry said it can just be about figuring out different ways to have an impact.

"I had to learn how I can be successful in the NHL," he said. "And it differs with whatever team you're playing. Some are heavier and some are up and down the ice."

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said asking for a hockey sense definition from 10 of his counterparts would probably result in 10 different answers.

"To me, it's really the intangibles of the game," he said. "The game within the game and the ability to read and react off situations that maybe aren't scripted or predicted or coached — little positional things.

"How quickly can you transition? Can you jump to a hole at the right time?"

Keefe said there's also a wider debate about whether hockey sense can be taught.

"Some of it, I don't think you can," he said. "It is certainly instinctual and developed over time for certain players. But we're coaching it every single day to try to get them to understand the differences between two feet here, two feet there ... some of it certainly can be taught and can be developed.

"The one intangible that is probably the hardest to really pinpoint. But those who have it at an elite level really stand out."

Hockey sense, in short, largely remains up to interpretation. But it definitely exists.

"How you think the game, how you see things happen, anticipate things that are going to happen — it can be anything," Minnesota Wild forward Matt Boldy said. "A lot of it is how guys process and make plays. Everyone does it a different way.

"There's not one true definition."


Senators owner Michael Andlauer said during Wednesday's press conference announcing general manager Pierre Dorion had "resigned and been relieved of his duties" in the wake of Ottawa's botched handling of the Evgenii Dadonov trade that he's "looking forward to less phone calls from the NHL."

Andlauer, who officially purchased the team in September, first had to deal with last week's 41-game suspension handed to forward Shane Pinto for "activities relating to sports wagering."

His team was then docked a first-round pick in 2024, 2025 or 2026 earlier Wednesday after Ottawa initially traded Dadonov to the Vegas Golden Knights in July 2021, but failed disclose the winger's 10-team no-trade list.

The league was forced to void a subsequent March 2022 deal between the Golden Knights and Anaheim Ducks involving Dadonov when the list, which included the latter, became known.


The Vancouver Canucks have gone through some tough times in recent years.

They're also the surprising class of Canada's seven teams so far in 2023-24.

The Canucks sit an impressive 6-2-1 through nine games thanks in large part to the stellar play of centre Elias Pettersson and captain Quinn Hughes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on X.

Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press