The Wild's Brent Burns was selected 20th overall in 2003. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
“It’s like a batting average. If you have a batter who can hit .400, you have a hell of a hitter on your hands.” –Paul Charles, Minnesota Wild
The art of studying a player and formulating a career projection is what scouting at the NHL level is all about. In junior, potential growth spurts and muscle development make it a tougher task with many more variables. But the junior leagues are a great place for a scout to develop a knack for projecting – a skill successful NHL scouts must own.
In the NHL, the scouting reports are more polished. After a few years of growth and exposure, players’ body definitions have started a mould, helping to develop a more refined player-potential evaluation.
“When you’re looking at a player who’s 18 years old and he’s 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, (you ask) ‘where can his body improve versus a guy who is 6-foot-3, 185 pounds?’ ” Paul Charles, an amateur scout with the Wild, explained. “That frame can handle a lot more weight; it can fill out and he can become a big, powerful guy.”
Graduating from minor hockey to junior can be a little like graduating to the NHL, on the ice, anyway. Just as a 16-year-old kid has a tough time jumping in to play with stronger, more physically-developed 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, graduating juniors need time to catch up to professional men in their mid-20s.
“I look at Colton Gillies who we have as a 19-year-old in Minnesota and he does everything well,” Charles said about the 6-foot-4, 193-pound center, who the Wild picked 16th overall in 2007. “But if he was 20 percent stronger he’d be a much better player and that’ll happen, but it’ll take time. It’s a maturation process. There’s a lot of difference between a 19-year-old and a 25-year-old as far as strength goes.”
Having a solid frame, or the potential to grow into one, will help boost a player’s stock, but where he lands on the overall draft list depends on many other factors from numerous reports that both positively and negatively affect an overall evaluation.
“There might have been skepticism on Mike Richards,” said Kings scout Mike Futa of the Flyers captain. “Were his feet good enough for the next level? Then he basically took a team (2002-03 Kitchener Rangers) and was such a huge part of their Memorial Cup year, you started to see a player define himself. You started to see him and say, ‘You know what, his competitive leadership level and his ability to be the best player on the toughest teams is going to translate at the next level.’ ”
Even when it comes down to crunch time – when players enter their draft years – a lot can change in the final countdown. A player can still grow, work hard and put on a few extra pounds of muscle, or simply gain the confidence to help him breakout and dominate.
The top-tier guys, like John Tavares or Victor Hedman this year, will be watched closely at the biggest events they’ll partake in, namely the World Junior Championship, as lists are finalized.
For others, though, it’s a matter of continuing to work hard and develop physically and mentally. If their skills are fine-tuned enough, some diligent NHL club will reap the rewards.
Brent Burns, now a powerful, two-way defenseman in Minnesota who burst on to the radar of many casual fans after his standout play for Canada at the 2008 World Championship, was toiling near the bottom of an Ontario League depth chart at the start of his draft-year campaign.
“Brent Burns was playing on the third or fourth line as a winger in Brampton,” Charles recalled. “When central scouting brought out their first ratings, Burns was ranked around 120. But he was starting to play more, he was getting stronger, he was gaining confidence and by the time the final ratings came out, central scouting had him ranked 39th (among North Americans) and we took him at 20. We had a lot of people looking at us wondering ‘What are they doing?’ ”
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.