Most NHL fans usually don’t begin taking a hard look at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft until the season of their favorite team comes to a close.
At that point, those fans have a fairly good idea of where the team they support will be selecting in the draft, and it’s also when they really begin researching the players likely to be available in that spot.
By that time, amateur scouts for those same NHL teams already know the prospects like the back of their hands.
The scouting process for June’s draft actually began at roughly the same time NHL players were lacing up their skates during training camp in preparation for the 2010-11 NHL season. It’s a long, grueling process for scouts that lasts upwards of 10 months and includes many hours spent behind the wheels of their cars driving to high school, major junior and college games. The progression also encompasses countless cups of coffee and numerous hours at the rink, followed by an immense amount of time behind a computer, filing reports on their findings.
Amateur scouts are in the trenches all year long, putting in vast amounts of work in hopes of finding a franchise player for their organizations. It’s a challenging job and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s also an essential part of a team’s ability to find success and sustain it.
Exactly how wide-reaching is the draft process? Although each team has slight differences in the details of its plan, there is a method behind the madness. For the Avalanche, Rick Pracey and his staff of amateur scouts begin with a broad approach and slowly narrow things down.
“The first part is sort of September through mid-January,” said Pracey, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Avalanche. “That’s sort of just mass coverage, where we’re breaking out as a staff and we’re really as independent as we get, where guys first and foremost run through their leagues and get as much coverage as they can in their respective areas.”
The goal of the mass coverage segment is to help break players into categories according to how the scouts want to proceed with their viewing. That means dividing the players into groupings such as “priority player,” “player to watch” and “late-round interest.”
“That’s the general scattering over the first half of the season,” said Pracey. “Then we have our midseason meetings where we really pare those lists down.”
At the same time the mass coverage is going on, there is also a “crossover coverage” process which typically begins sometime in November and continues through the end of the season. This important step consists of comparing the various leagues against one another. For example, a Western Hockey League scout – who typically stays in his area for the first few months of the season – will take his findings and travel to another part of Canada to rate that body of work against the level of talent in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Around the time February hits, Pracey and his scouting team begin to really scrutinize the players they think will be available at the spots in which their club is projected to select.
But even that isn’t easy.
As Avalanche fans saw this year, a lot can change in a short amount of time. As the injuries began piling up in the second half of the season for Colorado, the team went from being a playoff hopeful to gaining the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
“As an example, we were picking in the 19-24 range when we were in January. Then you see how we had to adjust on the fly,” said Pracey. “At that point, we basically narrow our list down. The further along the season goes, the more intense the narrowing of our coverage goes. We spend the majority of our time in February, March and April on the areas where we know we’re going to pick or where we’re projecting we’re going to pick.”
There are many key components in the coverage process for amateur scouts, but one of the most important is viewing the potential prospects at different points in the season. That’s where detailed planning and time management comes into play in order to see as many games as possible.
“It’s funny because that’s another part of it,” said Pracey. “Things can change so drastically, because there’s so much fluctuation in a draft year.”
A player who was the toast of his league in November may have fallen back down to Earth come February, or vice versa. That’s why it can be vital to set certain benchmarks with the players they are viewing during the course of the season. Are they improving as the season goes along? Is the consistency there? How are they handling themselves in the face of adversity when their team goes through a tough stretch? These are all important questions that need to be properly answered before a decision is ultimately made on a prospect.
“When we’re watching prior to January and we’re watching after, there’s a whole different focus,” said Pracey. “Later in the season is when you start to notice the compete, the defensive play, faceoff work, play away from the puck and timing in the game. Those all become big factors when you really begin to take a closer look and scrutinize a player.”