When the 2014 NHL Draft commences on Friday evening in Philadelphia, it will mark the culmination of years worth of scouting and deliberation for Blackhawks Senior Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley and his group of scouts. Under Kelley and VP/GM Stan Bowman's guidance, the Blackhawks have selected standout players such as Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen, among others.
chicagoblackhawks.com caught up with Kelley to discuss this year's overall draft depth, the Blackhawks' overall philosophy and how character affects their decisions at the draft table.
How would you compare this draft class overall compared to others in recent memory?
I think the biggest difference is the top part of the draft is not yet completely defined. I think that if you talk to all 30 teams, you’d have 30 different sets of five in their top-five picks.
When reading many of the mock drafts and scouting reports ahead, it seems like there is a consensus top two players, in Barrie defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Kingston’s Sam Bennett. Would you say that most teams consider it to be Ekblad, Bennett and then the field?
BLACKHAWKS 2014 DRAFT COVERAGE
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I wouldn’t say it’s a top two; for most teams they’re considering Ekblad as the top defenseman and the top forward could be Bennett, [Kootenay’s Sam] Reinhart, and I think there are a few other guys that could get consideration, too. [Prince Albert’s Leon] Draisaitl would obviously be in the mix. And then you have to look to who would compliment the type of game that you play, as well.
Could any of those top players be franchise-changing guys?
I’m not sure which of those guys could be franchise-altering. I think they all have a chance to be that. I don’t think the forward group's potential is completely defined yet, and a lot will be decided in how teams project them. With Ekblad, I think he is going to be a top-pairing defensemen on the team that takes him. I think he has a chance to have an impact on the franchise. But I’m not sure we have a player in this draft that can completely alter the state of a franchise.
One major trend we’ve seen over recent years is the number of American-born players among the top prospects, especially coming out of the U.S. Developmental Program and the USHL. Is the gap between the Canadian Major Junior Leagues and the United States development program shrinking a little bit?
I think it’s a reflection of the USHL. I think the league continues to develop players. As a league I think it’s getting better and better. It’s a particularly strong year coming out of the USA Development Team.
Especially in this draft, there seem to be a lot of young players at the top with strong NHL ties, including the sons of Claude Lemieux, Michael Nylander and Al MacInnis. Does living with someone who has been through the professional game give these prospects any sort of leg up?
I think in the case this year it’s had a very strong impact on a guy like [Brendan] Lemieux or [William] Nylander or [Ryan] MacInnis. They have some knowledge coming from their fathers, and that’s definitely an advantage.
Has anything about the Blackhawks’ scouting process evolved in recent years? Is there anything that the staff is doing differently to prepare for the draft?
We’re not doing anything different. We’re picking at the bottom of the first round. We have to be aware of what’s going on early in that first round; you just never know if you’re going to have the opportunity to move up. For us, our work in the past six weeks or so has focused on really fine-tuning our analysis of each player, understanding each one’s character, trying to make an assessment of the prospect and how they would fit into what we’re doing here in Chicago.
Speaking of character, we know that one of the major goals of the NHL combine is to get as many of the players to sit down for one-on-one interviews as possible, and really get to know each guy. Since the Blackhawks put such a high premium on getting character players, have these interviews ever dramatically changed a view of a given prospect?
I don’t think anybody moves up so dramatically; from the outside looking in, you probably wouldn’t notice anything. From the inside, players do move slightly, and if you had five players who you rated to have the same value, it’s easy to arrange those five players based upon what you know about the character.
Obviously, the ideal situation is one like in 2012 with Teuvo Teravainen, where someone who you rate very highly falls to you. At 27, that’s a little more difficult – it’s more likely that you will be looking at four or five guys who you rate very similarly. How does the table go about narrowing that list down to the one player you will select?
That’s what is interesting about this year: because there’s no consensus on what’s going to happen at the top of the round, it makes for uncertainty about what will happen towards the middle and bottom of the first round. Because of that, players that we’ve put a higher value on could fall. If it gets close to our pick, we’ll look to our players available and we’ll assess their value, how many players are in that value pack, and then look at what we think is the next value pack or the value pack above where we’re picking and then make a determination if we try to slide forwards or slide backwards.
We have the players and where we think they are broken down. As we get closer to our pick, if we see the value is very high, that’s a positive. If we see the value falling, then it might be a case where we think we can slide back a little bit and get that same valued player and maybe pick up another asset.
Presently, the Blackhawks have eight picks in this draft. Is it something of a luxury having that many picks coming into a deeper draft like this?
For every player that we draft, we’ll have spoken to them probably five or more times. The character really comes into play there. - Mark Kelley
In this draft, and really every draft, the separation of players is not as defined as many say; you can’t really separate it as easily as the eighth-rated player versus the twelfth-rated player. Then as you go further into the draft, in the second round, the separation again becomes a lot closer. Then really once you get down to the fourth round, the separation in value going from the fourth to the seventh is not as dramatic either. So for us going into this draft, we’ve done a lot of work, especially on the character analysis. We talk to all of these kids whether it’s at the NHL combine or our Chicago combine, and that wasn’t the first time we’ve spoken to them. For every player that we draft, we’ll have spoken to them probably five or more times. The character really comes into play there. As the draft progresses we’ll have a pool of players that obviously we like as players, but the character is what will make us step up on a player.
The axiom going into the draft is you take the best player available, but how much thought do you give to organizational depth at a given position when making each individual pick?
We see very good depth throughout our organization. That being said, while we’re at the table and while we’re drafting, we’re very cognizant of our depth chart and making sure we continue to fill our depth chart. In certain times, we will look at needs on the depth chart, and that really comes down to looking at the value of players; defensemen might have more value because of our depth chart or a forward might have more value because of our depth chart. I guess the simple answer is we’re very aware of our organizational depth chart going forward over the next few years.
It’s a good thing because in this draft you hear that it’s not as strong here or there or what have you, but I think all drafts are of equal depths. Where the difference is in the depth of the players at the very top end of the draft.