Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars, Nico Hischier of the New Jersey Devils, and Nolan Patrick of the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago. Source: Getty Images
NHL talent evaluators consider a number of factors before deciding who they want to draft – and who they don’t.
"I’m a big body language guy. You can tell a tremendous amount about an individual just by how they carry themselves. There’s one player who went in the first round that I interviewed and sat in on. He was a really, really good player coming out of Europe, but I have never seen a more nervous kid. I don’t want to say unprofessional, because he was simply just a young kid that was unsure of himself, but he was very aware he lacked confidence. He was sitting with a couple guys in management and a few other scouts. There were five of us, simply having a conversation, and he was staring at his shoes. He wouldn’t look you in the eye. He was sweating profusely, twiddling his thumbs, unsure of his answers, didn’t elaborate on anything. It wasn’t a matter of language barrier. His English was great. He was just very, very uncomfortable in that situation.
“I didn’t have a real strong familiarity with this individual on the ice prior to that interview. Then, when I saw him come up in the American League, it was evident that his play was very similar to how he handled himself in terms of confidence or lack thereof.”
As the scout went on to explain, it wasn’t any one element that made him cross ‘Player X’ off the team’s draft board. It was the sum of the parts. The interview was a nightmare, and the on-ice viewings weren’t much better. The pieces fit together to sketch a player this scout and his NHL franchise wanted no part of. And those are the types of decisions a scouting staff must make every season while evaluating a given draft class. Painting the most accurate picture possible requires many painstaking stages. What are they, exactly?
THN canvassed executives and scouts from around the NHL to learn which elements go into assessing a prospect in his draft year – and which are most important.
High-profile draft busts, the Nail Yakupovs and Patrik Stefans of the world, are the exceptions, not the norms today. Teams are better educated. They have more access to information than ever, often years before a kid is draft-eligible. By the time scouts are closely scrutinizing the world under-18s in April, many players have carried over from the under-17s the year prior and are thus already well known. As one scout points out, big-time major junior prospects in many cases were first overall picks and/or exceptional-status picks entering their leagues. Plus, word of mouth and YouTube footage spread even earlier – by the time they’re 13 years old in some cases. So it’s just a formality for a director of amateur scouting to send the message, “Watch Aaron Ekblad,” down to the regional and area scouts.
Do the boots-on-the-ground area scouts always get orders from above to observe specific players – or do the area scouts identify and recommend specific players? The information flows both ways. It depends on the player, one scout explains. Projected first-rounders attract plenty of top-down interest and instruction, often with teams wanting multiple sets of eyes viewing them. It’s the regional and area scouts’ jobs to identify the hidden gems, the high-upside mid- and late-round picks and send information and recommendations back up the ladder. Hence the common expression, “You’ve got to come watch this kid.”
While it’s never a bad idea to keep tabs on players before their draft years, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions during that period. Puberty can reset a prospect’s scouting report. “You get dominant guys that look like players but a year later they’re not, which is weird, but that’s the reason we don’t put a lot of time into the under-17s, because their bodies change so much,” said a scout. “If you took a guy like Cody Glass, who went sixth overall in the (2017) draft, and you looked at him as an underager, you would be like, ‘Meh, he’s OK, I don’t think he’s getting it.’ But a year later he’s one of the top guys in the draft. So to go invest a s---load of time too early is just a waste of a club’s money. “
on the icE
The consensus among every bird dog and executive interviewed for this story: each scouting tactic matters, but nothing beats watching a kid on the ice. The basics are easy enough to evaluate. Connor McDavid’s speed dropped scouts’ jaws, as did Ryan Pulock’s slapshot. Getting a proper read on a prospect goes beyond identifying the obvious, though. Even we laypeople can pick out the fastest player on the ice or look up a league’s scoring leaderboard. It’s the deeper information that helps scouts break ties between two players seemingly separated by a hair.
Most scouts steer clear of coachable skills such as faceoffs as they don’t reflect raw talent. A player’s hockey sense means a lot, suggests one Western Conference executive. He wants to see which players the puck seems to follow. Deployment is big. Does a coach trust this prospect on the power play and penalty kill? Is he on the ice protecting a lead in the final minute? Another scout says he pays particular attention to instincts, because a kid who didn’t fill the net in peewee isn’t going to become a different type of player in major junior. Little things like warmups matter. Is a kid focused? Or, as one scout says, is the kid able to read a newspaper five minutes before puck drop and still light it up? The talent hawks want to see correlation between routine, preparation and in-game performance.
It’s extremely important to look for specific traits depending on a given prospect’s position and projected role, says another scout. He wants to rate a playmaking center’s vision – but also how well he supports his defensemen when the other team is attacking. He wants to see how a physical shutdown blueliner handles a blitz in his own end. “I want to see you out of your comfort zone,” the scout said. “And that type of scouting you can’t really gauge over one 60-minute game. That takes two, three, four views to really understand how they handle, I wouldn’t necessarily say weaknesses, but situations where they’re not typically utilized.”
Seeing a player more than once is crucial. You never know what variables influence a prospect on any given night, one scout says. Did he break up with his significant other? Is he homesick? Is he living in a stressful billet setup? “The biggest thing when you’re sitting at those games and watching is that your area scout has done the research to know this kid inside and out and has a background on him,” the scout said. “For example, you go to a game and the kid doesn’t play (as advertised). So the kid plays in 80 games, and if he plays 10 bad games, you might go to four of those. Your area scout goes, ‘No, no, you have to come back and see him again. You have to see him at his finest.’ If your area scouts aren’t (educated on) who that kid is, that’s how you make mistakes, good or bad.”
How kids perform during the regular season and post-season provide the biggest sample size and naturally carry the greatest weight, but there are other evaluation benchmarks within a draft calendar. The Hlinka Gretzky Cup, formerly the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, gives scouts a glimpse at under-18 prospects in the summer. The Under-18 World Championship serves as a final look in the months before the draft. And, of course, there’s the World Junior Championship (U-20) at mid-season, consisting mostly of already drafted prospects but some high-quality draft-eligible ones, too. The WJC is the most-watched junior tournament around the world and seems to represent where prospects make their biggest moves on the consensus draft board. Nico Hischier overtook Nolan Patrick in 2017 on the strength of a scintillating WJC performance. But multiple scouts suggest the WJC earns too much clout because of its media hype and feel it’s an overrated evaluation tool. The key is to observe a prospect at multiple checkpoints throughout a season, not just a single major one.
Parents. Siblings. Friends. Teachers. Principals. Billets. All are windows into a player’s personality, and all are taken into consideration when scouts build a character profile. As one Eastern Conference executive puts it, he doesn’t need his players to come up as Rhodes Scholars but wants to know they’re good people. Are they disciplined on the ice but troublemakers off it? Do they struggle in school? Do they have constructive outlets for their time away from hockey – such as music or playing other sports?
Players from overseas warrant additional layers of evaluation. One scout said his team has employed a psychologist in the past to determine if certain Russian prospects are flight risks. Will they struggle to adapt to the culture, not just on the ice but also living in a North American society? Will they become homesick as a result?
Digging up accurate, useful background information isn’t easy. The sources for it are typically close to the prospect and, naturally, want to help with the sell job, so almost every report will be glowing. “The kid could have a heroin needle sticking out of his arm, and you’d think with Twitter and all this stuff you’d find out more, but you’re going to find out less,” said one scout. “You know why? Because an agency represents that guy, and the coach doesn’t trust you because he doesn’t know you as a scout, so he’s not going to give you the information you need. You’ve got to have a relationship where he trusts you. And when you get on the bus after the draft and it’s over and you’re driving back, it all pours out. That kid’s a heroin addict. His mother’s a prostitute. You name it, it f---ing comes out on the bus. It pours out like a river. But before that, you can’t find out jack s---.”
If scouts successfully unearth negative information before draft day, it’s not always a bad thing. It could cause a gifted player to fall in the draft, and if you place that player in a positive situation, he might develop into a success story and tradable asset. That’s how a third-rounder gets dealt for a first-rounder years later, one scout said.
“The interview” gets billed as a big final step in the evaluation process – but it’s usually multiple interviews conducted periodically throughout the year, most prominently at the scouting combine and right before draft day. The questions cover anything from hockey to other hobbies to a player’s family life and relationships. The scouts and executives polled for this story almost universally view the interview process as a complementary piece of information to connect with other data – just as one scout linked Player X’s trainwreck interview with his timid on-ice performance. None of the experts believe the interviews are make-or-break moments. “Interviewing a guy for 15 minutes with a suit on who’s telling you everything you want to hear is not my idea of trying to find out what kind of guy he is,” said an Eastern Conference executive.
Players trying too hard to impress is one smoke screen to dodge. Another, says the Eastern Conference executive: translators for European prospects. He believes they sometimes “clean up” any mistakes or unflattering comments when filtering through the language to English to protect their clients. Another scout suggests that some kids, coached by their agents, “run out the clock” without saying much to avoid making mistakes.
That doesn’t mean you can’t glean anything from an interview, of course. “Whether it’s an NHL player, prospect or a draft-eligible prospect, if I look at the guy like, ‘You know what? This guy doesn’t really care if we win or lose,’ I immediately try to get that guy off our list or trade him,” said the Eastern Conference executive.
On the flip side, players who convey that winning mentality can make a lasting impact in the interview room. Gabriel Landeskog, for instance, left teams truly inspired in 2011 before being picked second overall. One scout who sat in on a Landeskog interview said he walked out “wanting to go to f---ing war with this guy.”
Chins up, Sam Bennett and Casey Mittelstadt. When asked how they prioritize every element of scouting, most of the experts named the combine as the least useful part of prospect evaluation. The NFL combine gets a ton of media play, but NFL draft prospects are full-grown men, 21 or 22 years old. Scouts have a much better idea of who those kids are physically. It’s trickier to assess a 17- or 18-year-old hockey player’s physical tools. “You might have someone that’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds who can bench press and everything else, but is there more growth there in his game?” said a Western Conference executive. “Or a guy 5-foot-11, 160, who gets a growth spurt in four years and turns out to be 6-foot-3 and 220, does he become a better player? So you’ve got to be careful with the combine. A lot of times the smaller guys that are underdeveloped, they’re the better players, because they’ve had to rely on things like hockey sense and everything else in order to survive.”
Genes aside, youngsters aren’t always on level ground when NHL scouting combine day arrives in late May anyway. A prospect whose team got eliminated early in the playoffs has several extra weeks to get in shape and prepare specifically for the combine workouts, explained one scout, whereas a prospect who goes all the way to the Memorial Cup might be physically worn down and “skinny fat” from a long, exhausting season. How can we possibly compare the two based on their combine performances?
For some talent assessors, the actual results matter less than how a prospect approaches the entire process. Is he at least prepared and competitive? “The only question I would have to a guy if he’s really bad at testing is: why?” said the Eastern Conference executive. “Is he dumb, or does he not care? What’s the issue? I’ve met guys who are 17 years old and look at me like I have two heads when I ask them about training. ‘Training? What? There’s other training than playing hockey?’ ”