Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers played for the Toronto Marlboros before eventually ending up in London of the Ontario League. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/GettyImages)
“If you’re good enough, the scouts will find you.” – Scouting adage
When scouting talent for major junior, the top-level players stick out. You can see who the best skater is, who’s dominating a game and who’s got the obvious skills by scoring 60-70 goals.
But what about everyone else? These are 14- and 15-year-old kids who have a lot of growing up to do. In the Ontario League, where kids are drafted at age 15, scouts often start taking note of them when they are 14 and come back to see them the next year.
“I can tell you,” explained Robert Kitamura, director of central scouting and player development for the OHL, “it’s only one year, but it’s a huge, huge difference. I don’t know how the Western Hockey League drafts players at 14 years old. And I think that’s why out there kids go undrafted or kids who are drafted high don’t pan out as much.”
In the vast sea of minor hockey rolling through North America you’d think finding all the best players would be a little like searching for a needle in a haystack. But for the most part, scouts focus intensely on triple-A games. Some teams, such as the Toronto Marlboros (who were home to Sam Gagner, John Tavares, Cody Goloubef and Brendan Smith), are “super teams” and draw tons of attention.
However, if someone decides to stay in a small area, they’re still likely to get picked up, thanks to the Internet and league’s central scouting body.
“To get drafted, you have to be on central scouting’s list,” explained Darrell Woodley, the head scout of the OHL’s Barrie Colts. “Each team can add five names to that list and it’s up to all the other teams to go watch them and do their due diligence.”
New rules in the NHL encouraging more speed in the game have trickled into the junior ranks. While size is still an attraction and an advantage, the game is certainly more about quickness now than it was just a few years ago when small players with skills would be your late-round flyers.
“We have what you call a double-A list,” Kitamura said. “Those are the kids we project to go in the first two rounds and there’s more kids under 6-feet making it on there lately.”
Scouts agree the top 30 or so players are recognized, but after that the fog of war begins to set in. Each has a preference of what they like in a player and that can influence who goes late.
“I like players who are like I was when I played; players who compete every night,” said Woodley, a hard-working, two-way forward who played two seasons with the Colts from 1995-97. “I hate to say ‘bailing out,’ but you gotta have kids who will pay the price to win. In the later rounds, you’re just looking for something you like.”
When it comes down to crunch time and you have to start deciding where everyone stands on your final list, scouts often sit down and talk to a player and also his parents.
“You can tell a lot about a kid by the way his parents talk,” Woodley noted.
Hockey parents generally have a poor reputation because of a few bad apples in the bunch, but as Woodley explains, you might be surprised how reserved some are; even with their son on the verge of being drafted by a major junior squad.
“Some parents who know you’re a scout don’t really want to say anything because they just don’t want to get involved with the scouts,” he said.
But while most of the top-end guys get nabbed and smaller, faster players are back in style, like every other level of scouting, there’s always some talent that slips through the cracks.
“Carolina’s second-rounder last year, Zac Dalpe, he was in Brantford (Ont.) and he was 5-foot-6 and probably 135 pounds in his draft year; it’s tough for a guy that size in our league,” Woodley said. “And, well, you know the next two years he grew and now he’s six-feet tall.”
The place to be for OHL scouts this weekend is in Whitby, Ont., for the Silver Stick Tournament, where three days of midget games and six pads of ice will showcase a new wave of prospects.
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.