Much debating takes place on NHL scouting teams before they sit down at the draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Christmas in June is the best way to describe the NHL's annual entry draft from a scout's perspective.
An entire year's work culminates in a two-day opening of presents. Seemingly endless travel, bad weather, computer problems and arguments with your colleagues are all set aside. Although some of your most highly coveted "presents" are opened by other teams, you still end up delighted with the six or seven or eight presents that are placed under your Christmas tree.
On all NHL teams, scouts use their laptop computers to file reports on the prospects after each game they see during the course of the season. Scouts also maintain their individual rating lists of the prospects, which they constantly adjust as the season goes on.
In May or early June, most teams conduct meetings where an overall rating list is compiled. These meetings often serve as the emotional high point of the hockey season. Scouts can be passionate in arguing the virtues or drawbacks of prospects with whom they are familiar.
For the most part, the passion is directed to the scouts’ own position, as opposed to a personal attack on one of their colleagues. After all, many of these scouts have been working and traveling together for years.
It’s an interesting phenomenon to chair one of these meetings. During my 25-year career in the NHL, I have been responsible to get the final list prepared for the draft 14 times. Some things at the meetings never change. All scouts can be overly zealous in describing their favorite top prospects. That is natural.
I focus on several other features. For instance, if a local scout familiar with a top prospect is negative about him, that local scout is almost always correct.
When discussing prospects for the later rounds, if a scout is passionate in a positive sense, usually he is correct. Coverage of the prospects for the later rounds is more uneven. The other aspect the chairman must take into account is the prejudice of each scout. Even the best scouts have certain criteria on which they place a lot of emphasis. As they say in legal circles, know all you can about the judge.
The so-called "final list" that emerges from these meetings is not carved in stone. I always said the list was never really final until the time came to make the selections on the day of the draft.
A number of prospects are interviewed at the NHL combine in Toronto in late May where they undergo physical, psychological and medical testing. Sometimes further interviews and testing are required for some of these prospects as well as others who weren’t invited to the combine.
What impact does all of this activity have on the "final list"? This is a very common question asked of scouts. I believe most NHL teams approach this situation in the same way. A prospect very seldom advances up your list beyond the level that his hockey talent would dictate. However, a number of prospects could have their stock go down.
Medical information can make you nervous. A poor psychological profile can raise a red flag. Most commonly, after an interview you can judge if a prospect has the type of personality that could inhibit his potential to be a good NHL player.
The strategy sessions in the days leading up to the draft are actually quite simple. Which players in your "A" group really excite you? If it looks like you could make a deal to move up in the draft to acquire one of them, you usually try to do so.
On the other hand, if the "A" players are all gone, you may try to move down in order to acquire more picks. The "B" players are usually less certain prospects and quantity of picks becomes more important. Quantity also allows you to gamble on a risky pick.
Just like Christmas Eve, there is not much sleep before the draft. Once the "presents" are opened, it is time to eat, drink and be merry.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN at the NHL Entry Draft.