It Is the most wonderful time of the year for scouts, but the NHL draft is also a high-pressure weekend that can drastically alter a franchise’s trajectory. We’ve all seen the long tables laid out in front of the stage at the event, but what’s it like to actually sit there? We went to the experts for an insider’s look at life at the draft table.
While the first round takes place on Friday night, teams generally get into town on Wednesday. Jeff Twohey was the assistant director of amateur scouting for the Arizona Coyotes from 2014 to 2018 and fondly recalls catching baseball games with the staff on the Wednesday. “The first night was about getting the guys together,” he said. “It was something we would all look forward to.”
Thursday was time to get down to business. That’s when teams fine-tune their draft lists and do some last-minute interviews, though Twohey notes that the Coyotes preferred not to leave much up in the air at that point. “A lot of times it was Russians who weren’t at the draft combine or players we were having debates on,” he said. “But the interview process can be risky. We’re not skilled analysts in reading people. You have to go with your gut.”
Friday is when the real fun begins, with the first round happening in prime time. Before getting to the arena floor, a team’s director of amateur scouting will brief the GM on all sorts of scenarios surrounding their first-round pick and who the ideal candidate to draft will be at that slot. Arizona made a surprising pick last year when it tabbed center Barrett Hayton fifth overall, but the team had a lot of intel on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds star. “We got some feedback after that teams around us were high on him, too,” Twohey said. “Analytics supported it, and it helped that he played a position that we put a premium on. We looked at Filip Zadina (who went sixth to Detroit), but he was a late birthday, and Hayton had so much room to grow.”
Ultimately, the GM makes the final call, but he’ll be well prepared and well informed before he makes that decision. The reason so many scenarios have to be mapped out is that those top assets tend to be coveted by a lot of teams. Anecdotally, it seems as though everyone picking in the second half of the 2003 first round wanted Zach Parise, for instance. Tom Lynn, who is now a player agent, was the assistant GM of the Minnesota Wild back then, and Parise was a local kid. But the Wild also had designs on a big center from the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. “Everybody thought we were taking Zach Parise, and Lou Lamoriello kept looking over at us,” Lynn said. “So New Jersey got Parise and, one pick before us, Anaheim took Ryan Getzlaf.”
The silver lining to this story is that Minnesota went off the board and took Brent Burns with the next pick. Lynn still remembers meeting the future Norris Trophy winner that day. “Most kids are coached in how they act, but Brent was always comfortable in his own skin,” he said. “Usually the kids just shake everyone’s hand at the table, but he was gregarious and was getting into conversations with the guys.”
The Wild have played spoilers at the draft, too. In 2001, they were very high on center Mikko Koivu, but they knew Montreal – where older brother Saku was playing – also was hot on the kid. So they engaged in a bit of pre-draft subterfuge to make sure the Canadiens didn’t trade up ahead of them. “We tried to hide our tracks,” Lynn said. “We told everybody that we wanted a goalie. That was the Dan Blackburn year, so when we made the pick, there were exclamations from the Montreal table.”
Minnesota nabbed Koivu sixth overall, and the Habs took defenseman Mike Komisarek one selection later.
But let’s go back to the table itself for a moment because the setup is crucial. Typically, the GM sits at the head, with the head amateur scout on one side and another exec on the other side: the assistant GM, the capologist or the head pro scout. Someone from hockey operations is also nearby, as they’re in charge of the computer into which each team submits their picks. Each name has to be approved by the NHL before the pick is formally announced. After that first cadre of execs, you get to the crossover scouts – those who cover more than one league. Further down the table’s sides are the regional scouts, then sometimes part-timers. The team’s coaches sit at the end.
Teams also have a “runner,” almost always the child of someone from the organization – the owner or coach, for example – who wears the team’s jersey and is responsible for grabbing food for the staff or papers from the printer. Unofficially, they can even pass notes to other teams, if they are trusted with such duties. While it’s a fun job for the kids, the NHL actually has them attend an official meeting beforehand where they are informed on the importance of confidentiality at the event.
When Lynn was working for the Wild, he was in charge of a list of papers that detailed every team’s draft selections for that year and the next two, including whether the picks were conditional. That way, GM Doug Risebrough was always up to date when trades were being proposed. Figuring out when and if to trade at the draft is a science all to itself. Lynn cites former New York Rangers GM Glen Sather as an ace when it came to making those quick decisions to move up or down, while noticing himself that there was a sort of natural order to what would happen in those scenarios: if a team moved up, they were taking a potential impact player. If they moved down a few spots, the selection tended to be more of a coldly efficient player. Once a goalie is taken, several netminders usually follow in quick succession, as if no team wants to miss the boat on grabbing one.
It’s all about reading the draft. You need a feel for when you think you can get guys. We liked gaining picks, but the offer had to be right, because you didn’t want to lose out on
a player, either.
– Jeff Twohey, assistant director of amateur scouting for the Coyotes from 2014-18
Twohey also remembers trade scenarios coming out constantly, especially on the second day of the draft. “It’s all about reading the draft,” he said. “You need a feel for when you think you can get guys. We liked gaining picks, but the offer had to be right, because you didn’t want to lose out on a player, either.”
After the whirlwind of the first round on Friday night, teams don’t have long to regroup: the second round starts bright and early on Saturday morning. But it’s important for the GM and his scouts to revise their list, based on the first-round results. And even having the first pick on the second day isn’t always easy. Longtime Edmonton Oilers scout Bill Dandy is now working with the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats, but he recalled a big debate the Oilers had back in 2011 after they selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first overall. Edmonton had the first pick of the second round, and the scouts were split on what to do. “All the guys in the East wanted Boone Jenner,” he said. “But we had no depth on defense at the time, and the guys out West wanted David Musil. After two hours of debate, we were still at a standstill, so (GM) Steve Tambellini and (director of amateur scouting) Stu MacGregor made the call to take Musil.”
As for the team’s draft list, it can go about 75 to 90 names deep, though some teams may go longer or shorter, depending on that particular year’s crop of talent. Eventually, teams move on from the “best player available” stance that dominates the early going. “Once you get past the fourth round, then you start looking for needs,” Dandy said. “Maybe it’s a right-shot defenseman or a left-shot center, for example.”
There’s a lot of triumph, a lot of anxiety and a lot of heartache at the draft, but even the most veteran scouts agree that it’s all worth it once that first selection is made under the bright lights. “I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it,” Twohey said. “It’s always exciting going up on that stage.”