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Draft Q&A with David Conte

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Conte (purple tie) at the podium with 2009 first-round pick Jacob Josefson. At left is Lou Lamoriello. Claude Carrier, Assistant Director of Scouting, is second from right, next to scout Dan Labraaten.

Take your pick: History on Devils' side

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For years, the Devils have built their foundation through the draft. For close to two decades, the top dog of Devils' scouting has been David Conte.

Conte, the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations/Director of Scouting, is entering his 28th season with the club, 19th as director.

With the Devils set to pick fourth overall at the NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn., on Friday, June 24, Conte took the time to describe preparations for the team's highest selection since Scott Niedermayer (third overall) in 1991.

How has this process been different from past years when the Devils have typically picked lower in the first round?

Well, clearly we’ve spent time on the higher-end pool of players. It’s not terribly different. It’s still a seven-round draft and you have to make every round count. But clearly we have to focus on a certain pool. I would say 1 to 10. So it does allow you a little more comprehensive investigation, whereas before if you were picking 25, you’re in a pool maybe of 40 in the terms of the first pick, which is obviously what everybody’s attention goes to. But as a staff our attention goes pretty well-dispersed to 1 to 7.

Do you look to fill a specific team need or do you look for the best available player?

It is always the best available player. The team needs, or certain things, they can come into play, I think, if it’s a tie, but there really are no ties. Obviously, the higher you are in the draft, the more you give things like that a little more weight, but really not. It’s an interesting dynamic that at one time we had a plethora of goalies. We had Sean Burke, Kirk McLean and Chris Terreri and Craig Billington, and in the draft that year we took Martin Brodeur, Mike Dunham and Corey Schwab. So it’s really about the quality of the player. Even with Martin Brodeur, it’s not that we needed a goalie, it was that Martin Brodeur was the best player. That’s an axiom for you, the best way I can explain it.

Did you learn anything at this year’s NHL Combine?

You always learn things. I also always defer to our physiologist, Garret Caffrey, because I’m not sure that any of us have the expertise to interpret what that data and those tests actually mean. I defer to him and yes I always learn things from him that over the course of time have proven very helpful.

What’s your take on this year’s draft field as a whole, even into the deeper rounds? Is this a strong draft class?

It’s pretty representative, I would say. The draft isn’t as defined with a couple of high-end priority guys as much as the past. You may be looking at it a little deeper. Generally speaking, I prefer not to compare drafts or strengths of drafts and I’d rather focus on dealing just with what we have at hand. We can’t change the player pool. It’d be nice if we were looking at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin and all these guys in one draft, but we’re not. So we’re looking at also very good players that are going to have major impact in the NHL for a long time coming. We just want to be sure to get the best one available to us. Whether it’s strong or it’s weak really doesn’t matter. The only thing I want to concern myself with is getting the best one that we can.

Is the feeling that with the fourth overall pick, you’re going to get a kid who can be an impact player for years to come?

That’s the plan, and even for other stages in the draft. It certainly gets more speculative as you get into later rounds, but even through a good part of the first round, there’s still going to be players that can have considerable impact. We don’t have to look any farther on our roster than Martin Brodeur at 20 [overall], Patrik Elias at 51, Zach Parise at 17, Travis Zajac at 20 – there are always players that can have considerable impact at any point in the draft. Clearly, when you’re four, you have the choice of those players that you think have impact. With that, it has more meaning and your odds of finding that player should be enhanced because you’re getting the first pick at it. Having said that, it’s still a developmental process of integrating the player into the team and him developing and he’s still 18 years old. The work’s not done by just drafting the player that might be applauded by The Hockey News.

When fans look at who they expect their team to take, they see stats or size. Besides the obvious criteria, the talent and the numbers, what other things do you evaluate in a draft prospect?

We have always, with the Devils, put a premium on character. That character comes in a lot of different forms. There’s competitive on-ice character, there’s off-ice responsibility, there’s leadership. There’s a lot of factors. We have not had problems of significance with behavioral things or selfishness with most of the players we’ve had over the years. I think, largely, that mandate comes from Lou [President/CEO/GM Lamoriello] and I think, largely, it is a foundation for the long term of success that we’ve had in the past. You only have to look at the players we’ve had that have come and gone and the quality of the people that they are: Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan. It goes way back, and we’ve always emphasized that, not that other teams don’t. Often when you’re talking about players of that Hall-of-Fame stature, they have to have that character to be of that stature. There’s a skill set, there’s a character and there’s a productivity and you weigh all of those things. There is no magic formula. Every year, it’s different. Every player is different. There will never be another Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but there’ll be another somebody else.

Is the interview process vital in determining character?

The Combine interview process is very difficult for both the player and the teams because it’s a machine-gun process and there’s maybe 20 in a day for both the player and the team. It’s not the most comfortable or productive 20 minutes. Other contact we will organize with a number of players that are of serious consideration, and that is more valuable. We’d be presumptuous to say we really know someone on those kinds of meetings. What does reflect on their character is the body of work. Over the course of years, any character flaws are more reflected in games than they are in interviews. How they react to their teammates – those things are far more reflective than an adult talking to an 18-year-old prospective hockey player about his future. It’s more important sometimes how the player feels about his teammates and how his teammates feel about the player. It’s not always easy to get answers to those kind of questions, but that is probably a more valid assessment of someone’s character.

You mentioned Scott Niedermayer, and the last time the team picked this high it was to take him third overall in 1991. What do you remember about that day?

I remember it was a good day. That was a fairly easy selection, but you also have to remember the players that were around him in that selection didn’t necessarily have the same types of careers that he had. Nobody did, including Eric Lindros. [Niedermayer] was a very special pick. Could we have predicted that? Or did we at the time think that the players that went second (Pat Falloon, San Jose), fourth (Scott Lachance, NY Islanders), and fifth (Aaron Ward, Winnipeg) were terribly different than him? Not to the degree that it manifested itself. One has a Hall-of-Fame career. The others had very good careers, but that’s a Hall-of-Fame career. Unfortunately, that was a nice thing to do because it wasn’t even our pick (acquired in 1989 from Toronto for Tom Kurvers).

Are you excited for this pick?

Absolutely. It’s been a long time. You could play nine holes of golf before we get to pick most years.

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