New Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams has a lot of work to do now that he’s running the ship for the Pegulas and after the stunning mass firings of hockey people last Tuesday, a big part will be finding scouts. Right now, Buffalo has just seven total scouts, including two pro scouts.
While there is rampant speculation that the Sabres will try to slim down its roster of talent hawks, this is a franchise that went into the season with 21 scouts in various positions around the world.
Which got me thinking: How do you build a scouting department, essentially from scratch? Usually this is the domain of the expansion team, so I called up player agent Tom Lynn, who helped build the Minnesota Wild when that franchise joined the NHL in 2000. Back then, Lynn was an executive who worked with GM Doug Risebrough. Lynn even wrote a book about his experience, one I often reference to this day.
The first thing Adams and the Sabres should think about is how scouting is not one-size-fits-all.
“Pro scouting and amateur scouting are very different,” Lynn told me. “Amateur scouting is more of an art, pro scouting is more of a science because now we have analytics. Amateur scouting, you’re trying to compare a goalie in third-tier Russian hockey with a goalie getting 19 starts in the WHL. That’s an art, you’re never going to have enough information.”
In Minnesota, Risebrough went for former coaches with a lot of experience on the pro side, such as Pierre Page and Terry Simpson (Rich Sutter was another pro hire, though most of his experience at the time was as a player, with a couple years scouting for Team Canada under his belt. He still works to this day, now with Columbus – so that one paid off).
On the amateur side, two of Risebrough’s earliest hires were Tommy Thompson and Guy Lapointe. Thompson in particular was leaned on to find other scouts to fill out the roster and the idea was simple: find gems.
“Tommy and Guy Lapointe were longtime scouts,” Lynn said. “Paul Charles, they snagged from the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen because they heard he had talent. Marc Chamard in the Quebec League, same thing. There was a mix there of experience and raw talent – just like drafting players. You have two first-rounders: you take one sure thing and one based on raw talent.”
This is one route the Sabres can still go this summer. There are plenty of talented minds out there running scouting departments in major junior or the USHL or Europe. Hiring away scouts from other NHL teams is trickier because you can’t often offer a lateral move; it needs to be a promotion and/or more money. There are, of course, scouts who have been let go by other organizations and it will be interesting to see how active Buffalo is on July 1st, as some scouts will see their contracts expire on June 30th.
My other concern for the Sabres is simply one of time. Assuming the draft takes place in late October or early November, they’re looking at about five months to put a new crew together – including a new director of amateur scouting.
In Minnesota, Risebrough was hired in September of 1999 and made Thompson and Lapointe two of his early hires. Lynn came on in March of 2000 and after that, the roster of scouts really began to fill out. That’s a minimum of seven months.
Fortunately for the Wild, they picked well. Six players from the team’s inaugural draft in 2000 ended up playing NHL games, with the first two, Marian Gaborik and Nick Schultz, both logging more than 1,000 games in their careers.
Another interesting tidbit: in 2009, Risebrough and Lynn were fired, meaning one of their projects fell by the wayside.
“When Doug was let go, we were actually preparing a massive analytics scale to look at amateur scouting,” Lynn said. “How do you measure results? No one wanted to do that back then. We had hired a guy named Shep Harder to be our first analytics guy, along with Chris Snow and said ‘we’re going to add this thing up.’ I wish we had got the darn thing done before we were let go because I’d like to know how good a job we were doing with amateur scouting.”
In this new era of technology, every NHL team is using analytics in some form or another and plenty of outside firms are in the game too.
If the Sabres are going to become competitive in the next few years, they’ll need to use analytics, but they’ll also have to find some scouting talent that hasn’t been snatched up by other teams yet. That is the daunting task ahead of Adams – and the clock is ticking.