What’s the best way to unearth NHL players at the draft? The sport’s top talent hawks wax poetic on tricks of the trade.
We’re only as good as our scouts. In the pages of THN’s Draft Preview, we break down every nugget of relevant info we can find on prospects, from their amateur stats to their bodily measurements, but nothing matters more than our scouting reports. Scouting is a grind. The NHL’s bird dogs freeze their toes in rinks all over the northern hemisphere studying kids to learn their strengths and weaknesses. But it’s also a passion and an art form. What are the secrets of the trade? What are the most important things to seek in a draft-hopeful kid? And what are the red flags? Is the travel as horrible as it’s rumored to be? We assembled a panel of experts with decades of experience in the business to find out.
What’s an unteachable trait that can’t be coached into a kid? BOTTERILL: Hockey sense, just the ability to read the game. It’s something players find at a young age. When they get to the age where we’re looking at the players, it’s difficult to insert the program into them or really improve at that level. BERNHARDT: The competitive nature of the kid is not going to change much. It is what it is. You’re born with it. It’s hard to change that. Your hockey sense and feel for the game are inherent things you’re not going to change in a hockey player. You can coach him some, but those natural instincts…you know you are what you are. MACDONALD: A forward with questionable hockey sense or a guy with speed and size can probably get away with it. A defenseman with questionable hockey sense has a hard time competing at the NHL level. You can camouflage certain things at certain positions, but at other positions you can’t.
What’s a teachable trait you can coach into a player? MCDONNELL: The defensive capabilities, whether it’s playing a 1-on-1 or just your zone coverage. Things like that are not only coachable, but they’re also things you can just work on on a day-to-day basis. BOTTERILL: The skating stride, being able to specifically work on leg strength and leg muscles. With just how technical we’ve gotten – what exactly is wrong with the stride, implementing drills they can work at. With skating and speed being such a big part of the game, you’ll never get to the point where you develop a marginal skater into a Carl Hagelin, but there are a lot of different ways to improve your skating.
Is there a universal “red flag” that scares you away from a kid? ARMSTRONG: The typical rule I use is, if you’re dumb, you’re usually dumb for life. You can’t fix dumb. If you’re dumb now, you’ll be a dumb hockey player later. That doesn’t change. BOTTERILL: That internal drive for improvement has to be there. These players are still a work in progress, and if that work ethic and internal compete aren’t there, it’s going to be difficult for them to progress. BERNHARDT: There are certain things one kid may not be able to do that you would think would keep him away from the NHL, but he may have other things, intangibles, that can overcome that. I really don’t like to say, “He can’t do this, so he’s out.”
How important is the combine? MCDONNELL: The biggest thing out of the combine we get is the 1-on-1 interaction with the player: having a meeting with him, sizing him up, having a quick conversation with him, seeing if he can relate to you. BOTTERILL: Do I think it should influence to the point someone jumps up a whole round? By no means. But it does factor in with all the other information you’ve gathered throughout the year. If you’re indecisive or between a player who is 28th, 29th or 30th on the list, those are the things you can glean from the combine and the interview. ARMSTRONG: The combine is basically this: it’s like you have a daughter, and your daughter’s boyfriend is coming over to your house for the first time. That’s the same feeling you get. You’re looking at the way he sits, his haircut, the way he talks, his confidence, and there are good things you get out of that.
What homework do you do to research a prospect aside from watching him play? MAHONEY: We’re trying to gather as much information as we can on the whole person and not just the player. That can come from many sources. You have the high schools, administrators or the vice-principals. You’ve got people within hockey: trainers, billets. MCDONNELL: We do our background work, family wise. If we have an in into their school systems, we talk to gym teachers and somebody associated with him when he was playing minor hockey. Even if it’s other sports they’ve played, if we have a connection with old coaches, whether he played soccer or baseball or whatever, we find out what kind of character they felt the player had, whether he had a no-quit attitude or if he’s a hard worker.
What’s your best 1-on-1 interview memory? MCDONNELL: Cam Janssen comes to mind. He was sitting there, and he was not just shaking – it was like he wanted to beat somebody up. He was on his knees and he was just rocking on his chair. He had great answers, and you just knew he was a competitor. We knew what he was anyway, but once you interviewed him: “Holy cow, he’s gung ho.” ARMSTRONG: One of my favorite ones was this guy named Pulak. He might have been our 19th kid of the day. And you do 19 kids, plus we did 15 the day before, you’re exhausted. He came in and I said, “You speak pretty good English.” And he said, “That’s because I’m from Saskatchewan.” And the guys were just dying on the floor. You get giddy.
What’s your favorite piece of scouting advice? MAHONEY: Sometimes you go into games where it might not be anybody that gets drafted or makes the NHL, but you don’t know that going into it. So, being in the rinks is really important. Then you’re going to have enough viewings to give you the complete picture rather than just a snapshot of a game here or a game there. BERNHARDT: You want smart hockey players. That’s the bottom line. The one thing you’re looking for is guys who have a good feel for the game. ARMSTRONG: You’ve got to go to the rinks. There are a lot of guys in the business who want to wear the jacket, who want to wear the logo, but they don’t necessarily want to go to the rink. Our job looks pretty glamorous, and if you run into people, especially in Canada in the airport, they tell you, “You’ve got the greatest job in the world.” And I say, “You want to do my job?” And they say, “Yeah, I’d love to be a scout.” So I say, “Go get a cardboard box. Go in the cardboard box for seven hours. When you come out of that cardboard box, write a report for two hours. And then go back and do it again tomorrow.” ’Cause I sit in a plane and a car in a seat, and then I file a report in a hotel. It’s a hard job. MAHONEY: Understand progression, too. Everyone isn’t the same, especially at 17 or 18. Think about what they are they today but also what will they be at 23 to 24 years old.
What’s your worst travel horror story? MACDONALD: There’s somebody on every staff that’s been to Europe and put diesel fuel into their rental car. ARMSTRONG: We went out from Saskatoon to Regina, and we get into Regina, and they said the roads were closed, so we go back to Saskatoon. The next morning we wake up at 7 a.m. and we try going, and the roads are fine, you can drive on them, but there’s ice on the roads. It’s a two-lane, and the wind starts pushing us into the oncoming lane. So we turn around and go back to Saskatoon. And
you try to find a flight from Saskatoon to Regina. You can’t get one! So we have to fly to Vancouver, then to Regina, so it’s a two-hour drive that turns into a nine-hour flight time. MCDONNELL: There were about 100 of us. It was an international tournament in Moscow. We were stuck in the airport two days. We’re all just sitting in the lounge, and they’re not telling us anything in English. We’re going to get on a plane, and we’re on the tarmac. There’s a guy on a step ladder with one of those old brooms people made in the olden days, and he’s got a bucket, and he’s de-icing the wings with that thing. And we’re like, “Oh my God, where are we going?” But we made it.
What’s the best piece of advice you could pass on to a young player? ARMSTRONG: I have a son (Jamie) in the draft, so I passed along to him the same thing: the draft doesn’t mean jack s—. The draft just opens the door. You have no idea the pain and the amount of work you have to put in to make that next step to be an NHL player. But a lot of them stop working. They stop getting better. What they don’t realize is the draft’s one day, and it’s a big party, and the next day you have to go back to the weight room, back to the rink and start shooting pucks and start working to become an NHL player, because it’s a huge gap. BOTTERILL: You need the ability to deal with disappointment of being sent down or scratched from a game and rebound, because another opportunity is going to be there right away. I look back on my own career, and maybe I missed my next call-up because I was still disappointed with the initial send-down. MAHONEY: You may be on a team where you’re given a lot of opportunity, higher in the lineup or more special teams. Or you can be on a team not as heavily scouted as a player may think. But if you’re a good enough prospect, the scouts will find you eventually. I don’t think it matters where you start. If you’ve got that commitment and that desire, you’ll find a way to play. We’ll find a way to find you.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.