SANTA CRUZ, June 28, 2013 – Most scouts spend the season traveling from one rink to the next throughout their assigned territory. They do not expect parades or accolades for the hours they endure shivering in frigid arenas or the days and weeks alone, away from friends and families. It is a solitary existence and yet it is the lifeblood of every National Hockey League (NHL) franchise.
As the 2013 NHL draft gets underway this weekend in New Jersey, most people in the hockey world already know who the first dozen picks will be. The high-end players have a way of separating themselves from the pack and so it boils down to who will go when and to which team. The first round is not where NHL scouts earn their paychecks. My mom could pick a good player in the first round.
Scouting is about intangibles. Studying and cataloging all the traits which are not numbered and do not show up on a stat sheet. The fluidity of a stride, the body language after a bad shift, the way a player communicates (or not) with his teammates. Good scouts look not for the best players but for the right ones.
After the predictability of the first round, the draft will become a guessing game. General managers will be counting on their staffs to find hidden talent and to have properly scouted, based on both the team’s immediate and future needs. Scouts must not only decide if a player is good enough right now, they must also be able to project what type of player they will become in three to four years.
Some franchises have proven to be eerily prophetic when it comes to finding talent while others have squandered pick after pick. There have been some memorable hits and misses in recent drafts and it all goes back to scouting.
Few teams have scouted or drafted better in the last two decades than the Detroit Red Wings. They methodically build their teams, seldom rushing a prospect into their NHL line up prematurely. The Red Wings enduring competitiveness is made more impressive, considering that they are picking late more often than not.
The Red Wings also scout Europe better than anyone else. Their director of European scouting, Hakan Andersson, has become something of a legend in the scouting world for the ability of him and his European staff to find great players, especially in the later rounds.
Two recent examples are Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk, regarded as one of the NHL’s elite forwards, was not picked until the sixth round, 171st overall in the 1998 entry draft. Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was selected the following year in the seventh round, 210th overall. To find two transcendent players that late in the draft speaks volumes about a scouting staff’s diligence and its attention to detail.
Conversely, the Columbus Blue Jackets have had a top ten pick in every draft but two since they entered the league in 2000. Most of those picks have yet to play a single NHL game.
The 2003 draft is regarded as one of the deepest in recent history. Just about every team got a star player who is still a force in the league. Every team, that is, except for the New York Rangers.
The Rangers’ scouting staff in all of its wisdom passed on Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, and Corey Perry to take Hugh Jessiman with the twelfth overall pick. Jessiman just recently played his first two NHL games, eight years after he was drafted and for a team (Florida) other than the one that picked him.
Finally, one of the biggest misses in recent draft history was by the San Jose Sharks. The team entered the league in the 1991 season and was awarded the second overall pick in that year’s draft. It was an opportunity to lay the foundation for the new franchise and, after the scouting staff pooled their extensive data, the Sharks selected Pat Falloon, a winger with the Spokane Chiefs (WHL), who was coming off an impressive sixty-four-goal season.
Next up was the New Jersey Devils who promptly selected Scott Niedermayer with the third overall pick. Niedermayer went on to win four Stanley Cups, three of them with the Devils, and is a sure bet to end up in the hockey hall of fame. As for Pat Falloon, he bounced around the NHL with a few different teams, played a season in Europe and was out of hockey within ten years of being drafted.
Teams are built through the draft and they depend on their scouts to make those decisions. The teams that consistently challenge for the Stanley Cup are those whose scouting staffs that go the extra mile and have learned how separate flash from substance.
This weekend in New Jersey, some teams will find gems in the later rounds while others will shoot and miss with high picks that never play a minute in the NHL. The numbers have been crunched, thousands of game reports filed and now it is time for the scouts to shine, just for a moment, before they start all over next season.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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