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Scouting is such an interesting concept. Basically, it consists of hockey enthusiasts of all backgrounds evaluating talent all around the world and eventually rating them based on a wide range of skills. Then for the NHL entry draft, all these prospects are ranked among their peers and a final order is tabulated. It is hardly a perfected science, as the human element always has the chance to completely destroy any concrete conclusions made by so called talent evaluators. Therein lies the beauty of scouting – it is all subjective. One scout could watch a player for 10 games in a row and form his conclusions, while another could watch the same player for a different 10 games and come up with something totally different. Both could be completely accurate but contradict in their final analysis when grading the player. The best part is, it could take several years to determine who was right if there even is such a thing. There are no guarantees in scouting minus the odd generational player; it’s pretty much up to the talent evaluators to take educated guesses and hope they can develop some kind of system that allows them to hit on their top draft picks, while unearthing some late round gems along the way.
Some scouts have played the game at the highest level and turned to scouting, while others are fulfilling a lifelong dream without ever playing a single game. Whichever the case, everyone seems to have a different opinion on which skill-sets matter the most, and how they should properly evaluate a prospect’s talent. The beauty of modern technology and social media is that anyone can watch a hockey game and scout players. It’s really not that hard if you know the game. The challenging part is predicting future success or failure based on a set of principles or guidelines you use in your evaluations that stand the test of time. Knowing what to look for in a prospect both positive and negative is the key to a thorough evaluation, but even then you’re still banking on things like proper development, deployment and an avoidance of injuries. There’s a lot more to it than just “he looks good”.
That being said, scouting is something I really enjoy and have being doing unofficially for several years. Living in London, Ontario, I have been very fortunate to witness the growth and development of many future NHL‘ers playing for the Knights and the visiting OHL teams for two decades. An important part of scouting for me is to draw parallels between past and present prospects which help put things in perspective when I’m forming my final evaluations. I have my own set of standards I swear by that break down a player’s game and help predict how it will translate to the NHL level. My system is not perfect and I don’t pretend I am flawless in my projections, but I do like to think I’m usually not too far off and am strong in my convictions once my evaluations are complete.
Photo credits to Claus Anderson/Getty Images.
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All else being equal, I prefer smart and fast prospects over big and dominant. I don’t care HOW MANY points a guy gets, I care HOW they got them. Too often over the years, scouts and draft experts become enamoured by a prospect’s junior production they overvalue them come draft time but the reality is – you don’t get to carry them over to the pros. It’s all about NHL translatable skills for me assuming prospects hit certain offensive thresholds. It’s why I take a guy like Robert Thomas over Gabe Vilardi every single time. Similar production in their draft year, but one clearly projected as a better NHL‘er based on his skill-set. That player was Thomas.
Speed and smarts always translate well, especially in today’s NHL. Size is nice and can be a valuable trait against smaller 16 and 17 year olds, but in the NHL you need to to have more skills in your repertoire if you are going to succeed. It’s important to keep that in mind in evaluating Junior players. Guys like Nick Ritchie, Michael Dal Colle, Lawson Crouse, Griffin Reinhart & Samuel Morin are good examples of players who were overvalued because they had “great size” which is just a fancy way of saying “big”.
I also take into consideration the organization each prospect is coming from when scouting players. With the exception of London (which is a powerhouse that consistently churns out quality NHL‘ers), if two players are close during evaluations, I tend to go for the player on the worst team. Guys like Mark Scheifele, Sean Monahan & Ty Dellandrea are good examples of really good players on awful junior teams.
In 2011, C Ryan Strome went 5th overall after scoring 106 pts for the 45-17-6 Niagara Ice Dogs while C Mark Scheifele scored 75 pts for the awful 15-49-4 Barrie Colts. Which one was more impressive? Scheifele had all the tools you look for and played in every situation for the Colts, yet Strome was drafted higher because of his perceived “offensive flare” and inflated numbers playing on a stacked Niagara team. Who would you take now based on their NHL skill-set?
In 2013, Jonathan Drouin went 3rd overall after scoring 105 pts for the powerhouse 59-6-4 Halifax Mooseheads while Sean Monahan went 5th that year after having scored 78 points for the dismal 16-46-6 Ottawa 67’s. Everyone loved Drouin’s playmaking ability and offensive flare but he was playing on a ridiculously good Halifax team, whereas Monahan was Mr. Everything for a lousy Ottawa team. So which one was more impressive? Monahan has clearly been the more productive pro so far.
This past season, Ty Dellandrea was one of my favourite players in the NHL Draft. He ended up being the 13th overall pick which was a shock for most people but honestly, I think he will be a better pro than Barrett Hayton who ended up going 5th overall. Dellandrea had 59 points for the lousy Flint Firebirds (20-43-5) while Hayton had 60 points for the (57-6-7) Soo Greyhounds. See where I’m going with this?
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What I’m saying is, typically, scouts or draft experts when they do their “draft boards” will rank the guy on the better team higher in the event of a tie. Quite often though it should be the other way around in my opinion. Just picture Dellandrea on The Soo last year and Hayton on Flint. Would their point totals be about the same if they switched teams or do you think one would be higher than the other in that scenario?
The reality is, stats are great but if they are the main reason why you have a prospect ranked as high as he is, then you’re doing it wrong. 100 points doesn’t mean Player A is better than Player B who only got 80 points. Other factors like teammates and quality of competition also come into play. Plus, some prospects games’ are just better suited for the Junior level but don’t translate well to the pros. You don’t get to carry over all the points you racked up in Junior to the NHL, you have to start from zero again. It’s important to remember that when you fall in love with a big time scoring prospect despite their obvious flaws. Grouping prospects together who hit certain thresholds (ie. 3.0 pts/60 mins, Even strength) then evaluating their skill-sets from there is a good practice to avoid statistical bias.
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As far as Red flags go, there are a few traits that are always a cause for concern that you have to be cognizant of when scouting prospects. Otherwise, you might fall in love with the next bust. It’s important you trust what you see and not overlook or downplay it’s significance. The truth is, most ‘experts” highlight the positives in prospects but pay little attention to the negatives with the assumption that they will be corrected eventually. That is USUALLY a mistake. You can’t fix lazy or dumb, and can’t change a guy who has the skill, but not the will.
If a player exhibits any of these traits consistently I typically would drop them down in my evaluations or eliminate them altogether:
The #1 red flag for me. I don’t care how flashy a player is or how much offensive skill he has. If a player is lazy and takes shifts off, it tells me he’s not willing to do what it takes to make it to the next level. Not willing to put in the hard work to be a better player. Prospects that are overly lazy, flame out all the time. Nikolai Zherdev was an example of a guy who had all the talent in the world but was widely considered a lazy player.
Being a good 200 foot player as a forward, really comes down to commitment and awareness. If a player is not a good 200 ft player then it should be a red flag. If a forward refuses to come back and help out his team he is either selfish or lazy; neither of which are good traits. If a defenceman struggles in his own zone, it will be tough for him to make it to the next level unless he is extremely talent in the offensive zone. Then he has a chance. This is a correctable flaw that a coach can work with sometimes. Pavel Brendl is an example of a player who was widely considered a defensive liability and refused to commit to it in the NHL.
This is a tricky one. Usually a “good one night, disappears next night” type of player. You need to figure out if it is just because he is lazy, lacks endurance or is still trying to find his game. Usually, it’s not a good thing and there is some underlying factor as to why it is happening. Correctable for sure, but still a cause for concern. Plenty of prospects over the years couldn’t establish enough consistency in their game to stick permanently. Oilers fans could point to Anton Slepyshev as a recent example of someone who showed “flashes” of an NHL player but too many inconsistent efforts led to his exit out of the league. Jeff Carter was an example of a prospect who really struggled with consistency in Junior but ultimately overcame it.
Poor “Hockey IQ”
Some people call it “hockey sense” or “hockey IQ” but it’s basically instincts and decision making. For me, I just call them “dumb plays“. At times, you will come across a prospect blessed with tremendous skill, but who doesn’t make the best reads on the ice. Examples of poor hockey IQ are failing to see a guy wide open in front of you, waiting too long to shoot, losing your man in the defensive zone, making low percentage cross ice passes or shots consistently, and careless turnovers. Many young prospects struggle with this initially but it can be coached and they can improve with experience. You can also teach players to make better decisions but the guys who have the elite hockey IQ – you can’t teach. Essentially, if a prospect I’m scouting continues to make “dumb plays” then it is a red flag for me.
Poor foot speed
In today’s NHL, if a player is not a good skater than he is more than likely going to struggle to keep up in the league. A lot of times it is the difference between a productive NHL‘er vs. a productive AHL‘er. Top end speed doesn’t necessarily have to be great as long as they have quick feet, good agility etc. If any of those areas are weak, it is a red flag for sure.
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Here is an excerpt of a scouting report on a former 1st overall pick. Can you guess who it is on?
“Although he showed at the World Junior this year he can distribute and use his teammates effectively, he is certainly a one-dimensional player right now….”
“While his defensive play will no doubt develop with NHL coaching and more experience, I am not sure if he has a complete enough game right now. While he will no doubt be a first line talent for a long time in the NHL, I think to be a bonafide superstar (he) will need to focus on improving his play both away from the puck and in his own end.”– Taken from Kelly Friesen, Buzzing the Net via Yahoo Sports. April 2012. Link.
That player was Nail Yakupov. In that scouting report and many others like it, all the positive attributes were highlighted and emphasized while the negatives were downplayed. It reads as he was lazy, inconsistent and a defensive liability. “No doubt will develop” is an assumption the scout made but was hardly a guarantee. In fact, despite all the offensive flair he showed in Junior, the red flags were never addressed and ultimately led to the player exiting the league.
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So as mentioned, scouting is hardly a perfected science. It is still a much debated, subjective art with no clear cut formula to help accurately project future success. Some people are much better at it than others but no one truly is perfect at predicting who’s going to make it to the NHL and who is not. But, that’s what makes it fun. It’s a great topic of discussion for many hockey enthusiasts and it is something I personally enjoy very much.
My Top 31 prospect list has now been released. Typically, I don’t do mock drafts I prefer a Top 31 list as predicting what all 31 NHL GM‘s are going to do is near impossible. When I rank, I project which prospects I think will have the greatest NHL impact in their careers, regardless of where they are ultimately drafted in June. I break down skill-sets and look for positives and negatives in a prospect’s game that othe’s may be overlooking. “Consensus rankings” are thrown out the window as Prospects never produce better than each other based on their draft order. All the information I provided above is what I use in my analysis. Enjoy. Top 31 Prospect List.
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