“You know where you find the answers? In the rink.”
– Ontario League director of central scouting and player development Robert Kitamura on advice given to him when he first started scouting.
Scouting future NHL talent through the virtual world of video analysis was made famous in recent years by the Buffalo Sabres, who changed their scouting philosophy to be much less about traveling abroad and much more about in-house editing.
While video certainly has its advantages, when it comes down to it you still need to show up at the rink to get the best read on players because some nuances can be lost in video translation.
“It’s something about being in the building, getting a feel for their body language, their shift length,” said Mike Futa, co-director of amateur scouting for the Los Angeles Kings. “There’s a difference when you get right down to the intangibles to how someone carries themselves. You can hear them barking out orders or helping their teammates, calling for reverses or telling his partner to get his head up.
“You can get to some places live in a building where you can see (if) a player goes into a corner with fear or whether they go in without any fear. Until you get down on the glass you can’t see who’s throwing snow or who’s right into it, who’s looking guys right in the face in scrums and stuff like that.”
One thing about hockey – possibly a reason the NHL has trouble catching fire on TV in the U.S. – is that it’s difficult to appreciate how fast the game moves on the tube. The same factor plays into video scouting as well.
“You don’t get the feel for the speed of the game,” said Kitamura, who’s also the director of Ontario’s under-17 team. “For someone who goes to their first NHL or major junior game, the first thing they say is ‘I can’t believe how fast that was.’ Because when you watch it on TV you get the appearance that it almost slows down the game.”
Aside from the sounds and pace, another reason video scouting can hinder your scope on a player is that most of the tape – whether it comes directly from a team, a junior league, a bird dog, central scouting or the NHL – focuses on a specific player as the subject. Having such a tight look on someone can lead you to miss other important aspects of style and tenacity that are critically important to eventual NHL success.
“It depends on who’s shooting the video,” said Paul Charles, a scout with the Minnesota Wild. “Sometimes it gets in too close on a guy; I don’t even know if a hit was coming. But if the camera is further back you can see, oh, that guy made a nice play there, he was going to get hit, he made the play and he jumped into the hole and got the puck back.
“You can’t see other players if it’s up tight. If he’s in or out of traffic, is he tough on the puck? Beating guys? When you’re at a game there are certain players – I’ll use a winger for example – you’re watching the winger play and you’ll say ‘geez that guy’s a pretty good player’ so you’ll acknowledge his skill, his hockey sense, so you look for grit. And after a while you might say ‘you know, he’s never in the corner first. He seems to arrive at the same time and then starts to battle.’ You’ll never see that on video. You’ll see him go to the corner and all of a sudden there’s a group of players battling for the puck. Did he go in first? You don’t know.
“There are certain guys in hockey who seem to arrive in the corner at the same time because they don’t want to get hit. That happens at the junior level much more than the pro level because by then they are usually weeded out, unless they’re so talented (the team) will put up with that.”
Of course, video does have its benefits. While you may miss some of the game’s finer points, video helps bring your staff together to debate a player and allows you to really breakdown technique and tendency.
“If you’re watching video you can tell if the guy has a good long stride; if he’s smooth, agile,” Charles said. “Or if a guy’s a choppy skater, that shows up on video. If a guy takes a tight turn, does he lose all his speed? Does he almost come to a stop? If he’s a heavy-footed skater he certainly will and that’ll show up on video.”
As for team-building, video allows your staff to sit around a table and compare thoughts and notes on a player all at once. As productive as it is for your scouts to share thoughts on a skater, it’s wise to allow a goalie – namely your goalie coach – to have a look at a targeted tender and help you get a better read.
“I would certainly like to have someone like (Kings goalie coach) Bill Ranford to have a look at a goalie that I will have an opinion on and make note on the areas and tendencies I’ve seen and what I like in them,” Futa said.
While every scout agreed video is an excellent tool to complement your reports, it becomes dangerous if you stray from the arenas and end up glued to your TV set. As for GMs who simply don’t have the time to travel all over, they still have to make an effort to watch live games, but being able to fall back on video can be nice.
“I think it’s a great idea (for the pros),” said Jim Cassidy of the OHL’s Mississauga-St. Michael’s Majors. “It helps GMs not have to drive all over the place. I mean, we were playing in Peterborough a few weeks ago and Brian Burke came up to watch one of our players, Casey Cizikas, who’s considered a top-20 pick. Well, when Brian got to Peterborough the kid was hurt. So it saves the GMs that sort of thing.”
A Scout’s Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we’ll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.