Max Plantes chats during fitness testing June 8 at the NHL Scouting Combine in LECOM Harborcenter. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

NHL Draft: Max Plante, son of ex-Sabres standout, possesses high hockey IQ

BUFFALO – In his first days in organized hockey, Max Plante showcased the IQ that makes him such an intriguing prospect for the 2024 NHL Draft.

Plante was just 4 or 5, yet he understood the sport so well he passed the puck to his teammates. At that age, if a kid gets the puck, they usually keep it. But Plante even distributed it around the net.

His father, Derek, a three-time 20-goal scorer for the Sabres, still can’t explain it. He hadn’t been taught to pass. It was simply an innate ability.

“It’s funny, because from the first time he could play, when it was just like ice mites, the first level, he was making passes to people,” the elder Plante told the Times Herald.

Over the years, Max, a winger NHL Central Scouting ranks 43rd among North American skaters for this weekend’s draft, has kept confounding bright hockey minds.

Nick Fohr, his coach at the US National Team Development Program, said examining Plante’s clips and pausing the video doesn’t offer much help.

“One, I don’t know how he knows how that play is even there,” Fohr said. “And two, I can’t even see it on the video with the video paused. So I have no idea how he saw that that play was there.

“He’s got a knack for seeing the game. He sees it different and he can make plays, and he makes the players around him better, which is what you’re always looking for from a hockey player.”

He added: “He was the smartest hockey player we had on our team.”

The 5-foot-11, 177-pound Plante, 18, also ranks among the NTDP’s most tenacious players. He possesses an edge that complements his skill and smarts.

“This is a kid who doesn’t like to lose,” said Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting. “This is someone who doesn’t like anybody to get the better of him. So he’s got that compete in him and he’s got a little nastiness in him. Like, he’s going to do whatever he can do to win the battle, whether it’s break the rule, cheat a little bit, just anything to gain the advantage, because he wants to be the best, he wants to come out on top. Those are the type of guys come playoff time that make the difference.”

While he was born five years after his father played his last NHL game, Plante knows about the difference Derek made for the Sabres.

“He was kind of always a smaller guy in a league that was full of mutants,” said Max, who recorded 15 goals and 61 points in 51 games for the NTDP last season. “He was really fast. So I think his skill set probably would have been even better in today’s day in age, but kind of the little guy mentality where every day is not really given to you when you’re small.

“You got to earn it every day, and I think he did that as well as he could have.”

Max said he sometimes watches his father’s famous overtime goal in Game 7 of the Sabres’ first-round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators in 1997 before he plays.

“It gets me fired up,” he said June 8 at the NHL Scouting Combine.

Plante spoke that day following fitness testing in LECOM Harborcenter, a building connected to KeyBank Center, where his father scored his overtime winner, and across the street from where Memorial Auditorium once stood. The Sabres called the Aud home during Derek’s first three NHL seasons.

Derek, having been drafted by the Sabres in the eighth round in 1989, defied odds simply by cracking the NHL. But he developed into a strong prospect during his standout college career at Minnesota-Duluth, and he scored 21 goals as a rookie in 1993-94.

Max, who grew up 15 minutes outside Duluth in Hermantown, Minnesota, plans to attend Minnesota-Duluth next season and play for the Bulldogs with his older brother, Zam, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

Attending the school, where his mother, Kristi, starred in basketball and softball, has become a family tradition.

“I couldn’t see myself playing for any other team,” he said.

The conditional seventh-round pick in this year’s draft the Florida Panthers traded to the Sabres on March 8 in exchange for veteran winger Kyle Okposo has become a fifth-round selection because the Panthers won the Stanley Cup.

Okposo, 36, also earned a $500,000 bonus by winning the Cup in what could be his final NHL game.

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