The road to the NHL – Part 5: The gatekeepers

After spending the previous four installments looking at the young men who strive so hard for a change at reaching the highest rung, and at the older men who stand beside and behind them helping them onwards and upwards, it is time to listen to those who will be making the final decision on draft day. Any look at the player development machine would not be complete without the input from the men who are the final arbiters on the players working so hard for recognition. The Road to the NHL series ends today, a few hours before the draft kicks off, by talking to two senior NHL decision makers.  Both were generous with their time and answers, bearing in mind that anonymity would be guarded. One of them, hereafter referred to as ‘A’ is a current director of player personnel and the other, hereafter called ‘B’ is a longtime decision maker who now serves as a senior scout who looks at both the professional and amateur game.

On when NHL scouts typically start looking at players

A)     Probably the first standard tournament that we begin picking them up is the World Under 17 tournament and the training camps for each of the regional tryouts. All that’s changing this year. Hockey Canada is setting up the under-17s, but previous to that we would send our regional scouts to the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific tryouts and then we would see the kids that make that team at the World under 17 challenge. And that, for the most part, is a filtering mechanism that we use to get a sort of a lead on the kids… a finders list, or you know a first sort of set…A lot of those players, there is some duplication throughout the season because a lot of them are playing Major Junior anyways. We see some of those guys then…Yeah, generally the draft year (we start to talk to them). We’ll have informal conversations with the agents and things like that in their underage year, but for the most part… we don’t get into it until their draft year… Certainly not encouraged by the NHL.

B)      It normally starts at the Under-17 tournament. The agents are always talking so it doesn’t matter what age they’re at (to being talking to them)… They’re talking to the scouts…“I represent so and so and what do you think of him” and stuff like that. From our standpoint, we have scouts that go and identify these players. A lot of them play, are already playing major junior hockey, but because of their age, they are playing on the fourth line, or the seventh defenseman. They’re not in their element. And at the under-17 tournament, you get to see them play against their peers and you get a better idea of what type of player they’re going to be down the road… There’s always some of them (top end prospects), but there’s a lot of kids that you know, sort of, you look at them on their junior team, you don’t get to see a lot of them and you know, I think it ranges all the way through the draft from what you see at that tournament.

On the challenges of scouting and comparing players across different development environments

A)     We have definitely done some analytics on where the top players in the National League come from. And we also look at the different prospects, the guys that have been drafted in the three years previous to them becoming NHL players to see sort of where. And we have a sort of scale that we use or a metric that we use that basically outlines when we feel a player can become an NHL player and there’s another level to become an above-average or all star player and it goes up all the way to franchise player. Generally speaking, the CHL is still producing a great amount of the players in the National League level. Obviously it goes down from there to the other leagues. Europe. And you know you have high schools, USHL, et cetera…We have a mechanism that we use to sort of balance the level of play and there is, for the most part, there are very few outliers at this point that aren’t seen at a national level. Even in the US, there are very few guys strictly play high school. Which is often the case, they are usually sometimes picked up by the US Development program for different tournaments or exhibition games. Then we’ll also see them at times with USHL teams at the end of the year. Tier II players from the BC Junior league or the Ontario league, or whatever, often times they are at the World Junior A challenge or another tournament which is a step up from the league play that they are in. And we use those as essentially litmus tests for players playing at what we perceive is a lower level.

B)      If you’re playing in some small high school and you’re putting up points, for the most part, if we feel that a kid has any kind of skill, we try not to hold that against him. It’s one of those, it’s a catch-22. If you don’t do it and he turns out, you look bad, if you do do it and he’s not very good, at least you did your job. It just comes down to what you feel about a player and what kind of talent you see. You know the hardest part of this job is you’re projecting what they’re going to be two to three years from now…And you know at some point, when they’re 18 years old and going into the draft they might only be 165 pounds, but when you do the background work on him, you feel that when they turn pro, they are going to be 195 or 200 pounds. That makes a big difference for you…You look at the player’s dad, you track down his grandparents, the stuff like that. You see where they are. Brothers, sisters, you know, whatever it might be. But anything you feel can help you. There’s no information that’s bad information.

On the effect of the Draft Combine on player evaluation

A)     Evaluation in terms of the pure analysis is done prior to the combine. The combine is the extra 5%, right. It’s your interviews, it’s your final analysis that we use to push the players that we want to be, ours into slots that we think we might be able to get them basically. (Rankings don’t change in the combine by more than) couple spots maybe… It’s certainly not something that we encourage. You know, we try to have enough research done on the player to not make pronounced decisions based on workouts and interviews. Oftentimes, they are a determining factor between, if you have a group of players that are in the same sort of general area, that you have them in a range from, let’s say tenth overall to fifteenth overall, and generally there’s very little that separates those players. And there might be some interviews or analysis that gets done on their physiology that would push us up a slot or two, but in general it’s marginal… At the end of the day, talent trumps all, right?

B)      Well, we’ll have our meeting before the combine, but there could be a red flag going into the combine, where you look at, you know what, this kid’s never going to get to the size we think he is, or his personality dictates, you know what, we don’t like him. We’ll meet again right before the draft and we’ll move those guys around where we think it fits best… Very seldom, to be honest with you (on rankings changing due to the combine). The hard part about the combine is you get a hundred kids answering the same questions from 30 teams all day long. So you might get a kid coming through at five o’clock, through ten teams that have had the same question over and over. He’s tired and he’s fed up. So you basically have to do everything, check with his coach, check with, if you have a good rapport with the agent, check with the agency and then the area scouts should have a pretty good idea of what type of kid he is… Unless they come in and they’re a complete asshole… You basically have to go back, at the end of the day, it’s what they do on the ice. How important is that to the betterment of your hockey team going forward.

On the interaction teams have with player after they are drafted, but prior to them entering the pro organization

A)     It’s individual. It’s relative to the individual. But we encourage our regional scouts to have contact with players that we have significant interest in as much as possible. It’s not a hounding like once a week. It’s generally like twice a season or three times a season, where you’re doing informal and sometimes formal interviews with guys that we feel might potentially be in our wheelhouse…Our development director, he is in constant communication with all of the players that aren’t at the professional level. Our philosophy is that once players become professional, there is a guidance or a sort of a filtering tool that we attempt to utilize with our development guy through our minor league coach, but once they pass professionals, coaches at the minor league level or at the NHL level are the ones that are guiding their development. In that interim period, where they are drafted to where they become professionals, that is strictly interaction with our development staff. You build up relationships with some of these kids that, as a scout, that you’ll be watching their game, and you night pop down just to see them, and say “you’re playing really well. I appreciate what you’re doing in these areas.” Those such things, but those are informal interactions. We, for the most part, leave the critical analysis to our development staff… You know, we’re partners with the CHL and the majority of the programs have organizational philosophies and have experienced people who have dealt with lots of players, be they elite, or guys that go on to become college or CIS level players, you know. And, for the most part, we have a partnership with them and we attempt to monitor, but we don’t interfere… I can only speak to what we do, but you do have some knowledge about what other organizations do because I’ve worked with guys that are general managers on other teams or we talk to scouts and get a general feel on what their organization does. But for us, we immediately after the draft we have our development combine two weeks later – it’s like 7-10 days later, and we being or indoctrination into our system. In other words, most teams, all teams have something similar, but the process and the format is relative to each individual team.

B)      Well, after the scouts draft them, they might have limited talking with the player. A lot of the teams, most of the teams have a development coach… That’s his job. After you draft a kid, then you’re basically turning him over to him. So you know, you go into an area, you see a player, you go down and talk to the coach. You might spend a minute talking to the kid, but for the most part, scouts got to move on to the next game. They don’t have time to spend two or three days with a player and find out what’s going on. And it’s easier for the player to have a rapport with one person in your organization… I think it varies from team to team, but I think basically weekly. At the end of each week they check in to see how the player is and what he’s doing. You know if there’s something wrong than he’ll check in with the coach, or the trainer or whatever, and it’s up to him to follow up with it… Everybody has the same mandate, to draft and develop and make your team better. Some teams might do it differently, but I think, at the end of the day, as I said there, they are all assets to your organization, so you have to do whatever you can to make them better, to get them up to the big team.

On judging the success or failure of a draft pick

A)     Well, we’re always analyzing…. we do critical analysis of every team’s draft. We’ve done them as long as I’ve been there. There is more data out there now. So it’s somewhat easier to put your finger on who is successful and who isn’t…. There needs to be accountability that comes through playing well, but we’ve got our heads wrapped around the balance that needs to be struck there between being a successful American League team, providing a winning environment, and managing the expectations of development…There’s a clear indication when you look at the data, teams that draft and develop well all have their own programs. The teams that draft and develop well have to have numerous picks in the top 60 picks in the past ten years. Simple.  And there is, the range of variation – there are outliers in the seventh round, sixth round, fifth round, that do end up playing, but the percentages… It’s significantly smaller the further you go into the draft. In short, you can’t screw up with the top picks and you have to do a good job organizationally and identify the types of players you want in the later rounds. Teams that are most successful do that. They identify the types of players that are definitive to what they want.

B)      Well at the end of each draft day, every scout thinks every player they drafted is going to play. Normally, depending on the organization, if you need help right away, sometimes you have to rush your player in, but from a projection standpoint, you’re looking at, you’re drafting an 18 year old, you’re not expecting him to be on your team until he’s 21 or 22… (Thinking of a specific player drafted under his watch who never made it) The talent was there. He always teased you with the talent. And you just hope that one day, he’s going to walk in and go, “today I want to be a player”, but it just never happened. So some point, when the first contract is up, you’re going to get into a second contract scenario, you’re looking at the free agents that are out there and you go, you know what, it’s time to move on.. Every kid is different… When it’s a failure, it’s back to the scouting perspective. You know, the development coaches, he can only go so far with the kid if he doesn’t want to get there. He can’t push him. Now the hard part about scouting is that you’re wrong more than you’re right… If you get two players out of every draft that make your team, you’ve done a good job. So two out of seven is pretty good for most scouting departments. If you go above that, if you get three or four in one year, you’ve basically helped your team get better by two or three years down the road. But you go into a draft and go 0 for 7…

On changes they would make in the development system

A)     I think in general it works well. You know, the issues that I have with it are those extreme cases where there are players that are clearly too good for junior. That third year of junior, they are not quite ready to play at the NHL level, but they’re in that middle ground. And there’s guys that have regressed a little bit and it takes a little bit longer for them to reach their potential after being in those. Where if you have them in the American League, you can get them a little further down the road a little quicker.

B)      Make the draft a 20 year old draft… Because you know more what you’re getting at that age. At 18, you don’t know what you’re getting. You don’t know the physical maturity, the mental maturity is going to be at 21-22. At 20, you have a much better indicator as to where they are, how far they progressed, how strong they are. You know, at that point, they are pretty close to being NHL players, or not NHL players. But at 18, you’re still looking at babies for the most part… That’s why a lot of kids go the college route. Because they’ve got four years to develop. You go the junior route, you’ve got two years before you’ve got to make a decision. So some kids go to college, they’re 160-165 pounds, their third or fourth year, they’re up there. They’ve had more time to develop as far as off-ice training because of schooling. Junior kids are playing 70 games, you go all the way through, could be 90-95 games, finish with the Memorial Cup, go right into the combine. They finish with the combine, and then they have to go individual meetings with the teams, then they go to the draft and right after the draft they go to the team workout facilities. They work there for a week or ten days and then they’ve got two weeks basically to train to get back and they’re in camp in the beginning of August.


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