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Handicapping the draft with Amateur Scouting Director Mark Kelley

by Adam Kempenaar and Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks
Blackhawks Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley (second from the left) at the 2011 Draft (Photo by Getty Images).

With less than a week to go before the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, caught up with Blackhawks Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley to discuss this year's talent pool, the team's drafting philosophy and more.

In part one of the conversation, Kelley goes in-depth to discuss the draft's best player, the strong crop of defensemen and scouting players internationally.

How do you compare this draft class to other draft classes?

It’s rich in defensemen and that is going to drive the first round because there’s more highly-regarded defensemen than in years past. I would say the best way to assess it is fertile with defensemen and then we have some very, very skilled Russian players.

In particular, there seems to be a strong crop of defensemen out of the Western Hockey League. Is it odd to see so many players from one league near the top of the rankings like that?

It is. We refer to those kids out west as the “Fab Five.” Four of the defensemen have grown up and competed against each other since their midget days. Of those five defensemen, Ryan Murray is a late birthday, but you have the other four who are all, I think, the top four picks in the Western Hockey League in their year.

[Editor's note: Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart, Matthew Dumba and Derrick Pouliot are the other four WHL defensemen among Central Scouting's top 12 North American skaters.]

We’re less than a week out from the draft – can you sketch out what your timeline is from here leading up to the first round?

My job for more than a week now, and right up to the draft, is trying to determine what is going to happen with the 17 picks before us. If I can get a good feel for what I think is going to happen, then I can get a better understanding of what players we should be keying in on. I can tell you right now, there are probably five players I think we’re looking at hard that we think will be available when we pick.


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But this draft is a little bit different; when you look back to last year’s draft, for instance, there were six or seven players who we knew were going right off the board. We could probably have gone right up to the top ten last year, and we knew they were going off the board close to their draft order. If you go back and look at the 2010 draft, you’re looking at the same type of thing: Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin were at the top, then you had other players in there, probably going up in the top seven, that you knew were going to come off the board.

This year where it’s different, you have Edmonton and Columbus picking 1-2; we’re not sure what they’re going to do. Are they going to take that pick or are they going to make a trade? Until we get a feel for who’s going off the board, it really affects what happens beyond it and it's a ripple effect.

Is there a unanimous view within your staff and VP/GM Stan Bowman on who the No. 1 pick is? Is there someone who is clearly the best player in this draft for you?

No, and that’s what makes this draft unique. There is no consensus on who is the top player. You have the two top-skilled players in Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko. Then there’s probably six defensemen that are well-regarded. After that, you start to take team needs into consideration. I’m not sure that people see many players in this draft who will immediately come in and impact the team. There’s some suggestions that Edmonton might possibly look to move the top pick. The same thing goes for Columbus, and that’s even before we get into the dynamics of the whole "Russian factor."

For several years, Sweden has produced most of the draft's top European-born talent, but this year you have kids from both Russia and Finland at the top of the rankings. Has the cycle shifted as to who is now producing the top young talent?

I don’t think so. The unique thing about the two Russian players that are highly-regarded is that both played in the Canadian Hockey League this year. We’ve seen their commitment to come over and play hockey in North America.

When you look at Europe as a whole, from year to year, the highest-rated players from NHL Central Scouting could vary, but Sweden is a predominant supplier of NHL players out of Europe right now.

There’s a glut of good defensemen, there are a few highly-skilled forwards, but it doesn’t seem that there is one consensus goaltender that everyone thinks will project better than the others. Can you talk about the number of goaltenders and how you gauge the depth of that position?

I believe there’s going to be one or two who are taken in the first round this year. But I think if you look at the top ten goaltenders in this draft, while you might not see a goaltender with the pedigree of Carey Price, Cam Ward or Marc-Andre Fleury, this class of goaltenders has the potential to be very special. On the North American side are probably three or four goaltenders that we regard very highly, but there are probably another five or six out of Europe. We’re looking at ten goaltenders that we think potentially could start in the NHL.

You mentioned how several European players in the draft have come over to play in Canada; how does that affect a team's scouting?

The easy thing for us when any player comes over from Europe is that it gives us an opportunity to judge their playing on an NHL-size rink. The art of scouting in Europe is translating what you’re seeing to what you project will happen with that player when he plays on the smaller ice surface. Any time there is an international tournament in North America, it helps us greatly because the environment, the rink and just how the game is played more closely resemble the NHL game.

Check back Tuesday for part two of the conversation, where Kelley discusses the Blackhawks' overall system depth, scouting the combine and drafting for need vs. talent.

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