Ryan Ellis recorded 89 points in 57 games for the Windsor Spitfires this season and has followed it up with 14 points in eight playoff games so far. (Getty Images)
“It’s a way of defining who they really are in addition to all the other bodies of work you have on them. It’s that final piece that defines them, whether they truly are that player you think: Can they bring up their game when it really matters?” – Western Conference scout.
It’s crunch time for draft-eligible NHL prospects as the NCAA playoffs wind down and the major junior playoffs ramp up. This is the final time these players will go up against top-notch, older competition before migrating to Montreal in June.
And while this is certainly an opportunity for players to jump to the fore and make the experts jot a few more notes down for final evaluation, the high-end guys aren’t expected to carry their teams on their shoulders through the playoffs, though they should be asserting themselves.
“Most of these players are on teams where they’re not the oldest kids and they shouldn’t be counted on to carry the team,” one scout said. “There are 19- and 20-year-olds on the team so they probably should be the ones taking the team on their back.”
In the first round, scouts tend to hover around the less predictable matchups to get a glimpse of players who may not be around the post-season for long. For instance, a scout wouldn’t go out of his way to watch Ryan Ellis of the Windsor Spitfires in Round 1 because his powerhouse team should still be alive in later rounds when the competition is more intense.
And if a team gets knocked out unexpectedly early, or there is a player scouts would like to see play at a high-level one more time, there’s still the IIHF under-18 championship to attend (taking place right now in Fargo. N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.). Last season, for example, Cody Hodgson’s Brampton Battalion were upset by the Barrie Colts in the opening round, but Hodgson played for Canada at the annual April international event.
So while these 17- and 18-year-old prospects don’t necessarily have to be the leaders of an extended post-season push, scouts still expect them to show off some big-game potential.
“It’s being a catalyst. It’s showing will; It’s at this level, at this time of year, I’m going to make a difference,” one scout explained of what he hopes to see from a prospect. “And they don’t necessarily have to put up numbers per se. You can look at a player and see what his presence is in the game. You can learn a lot about a player on the losing side, too. It doesn’t necessarily mean bringing their team to the next level, it’s how they deal with that adversity.”
But if a player with an already-impressive repertoire of potential fails to step up and show another gear, it’s not the end of the world, although it’s also not the best of signs.
“I wouldn’t say I’d second-guess them, but I fully expect a high-level player to make a difference in a playoff series,” one scout said. “If he doesn’t do that…it’s not good. I have different expectations for different levels of players and depending on the player it may not drop him, but it definitely gives more to the discussion about his resume.”
After spending months – and for some players, possibly years – scouting these prospects for the draft, it would be difficult to drastically move a player around on a draft list because of what he did or didn’t do in a playoff appearance.
As one scout said, by this time you’re already familiar with the players and what they are capable of, but their playoff performance helps signal what sort of depth they have to their game. It’s also tough to bump a prospect up based on the post-season, especially if he’s moving past a player who didn’t get into the playoffs and wasn’t given an opportunity to show what he is capable of on that stage.
Some say the biggest test these prospects face is the World Junior Championship that happened back in December and January. While that is certainly a great place to see how a prospect can bring his game up to the next level, the better barometer might be the league playoffs, even though the stage isn’t as grand, one scout said.
“The stage is one thing, but at the same time it’s tough to put a ton of weight into the World Junior Championship because it’s a team that’s come together just for that purpose; they haven’t played together all year. In the league playoffs they’re playing with the same coach, same team, same linemates and in front of the same fans; it’s almost a bigger deal.”
The countdown to the conclusion of the season is on. The light at the end of the tunnel is within view now and final determinations are nearing their deadlines. Buckle up and tune in as the playoffs unfold and some of tomorrow’s stars are showcased.
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.