WINNIPEG - In Mark Hillier's mind, nothing can replace the atmosphere of being on the NHL Draft floor, handling all the pressure and excitement each pick brings.
While a second consecutive virtual draft isn't quite the same, the Jets Director of Amateur Scouting is pleased with how his staff has been able to navigate the uncertain world of restrictions and league shutdowns.
In fact, by Hillier's count, the Jets scouting staff has actually seen players more often than in previous years.
"A lot more views because of video. That's the way you can use the tool effectively," said Hillier. "Our total views were up on players, but our live views were down. We saw as many live games as we could."
The Jets weren't alone in those challenges, of course. Hillier said staff in the United States watched whatever games they could live, but restrictions prevented them from watching games in Canada - and vice versa.
"At the start of the year when all the European leagues were going and the North American leagues weren't, we had everybody on staff watching as much as we could in Europe because that's what was available," said Hillier. "Overall, I'm happy with the amount of views we have."
One valuable tournament for getting those live views took place April 26 - May 6 in Frisco, Texas.
The IIHF Under-18 World Championship was cancelled in 2020, but its return this spring was important. It's the prime opportunity to see a large number of draft eligible prospects play at the highest level, against the best competition, in their age group.
"We had a large number of guys there watching the whole tournament start to finish," said Hillier, who was at the tournament at the conclusion of a six-week long scouting trip.
"We got to see all those players play four, five, or six times. It was great that we were able to throw that in. It would have been a lot tougher if we weren't able to get to that tournament."
Heading into this weekend's NHL Draft, the Jets hold a total of four picks. The first comes at 18th overall, with the other three selections coming in the second, third, and fifth rounds.
Since relocation in 2011, 10 of Winnipeg's 11 first round picks have played games in the NHL. The only one that hasn't is Cole Perfetti, who was selected in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Video: DRAFT AND DEVELOP | Gustafsson
Time will tell if that stat increases to 11 of 12, or eventually 12 of 12. Hillier feels there will be plenty to choose from when the Jets are on the clock.
"I think it's a good, deep draft," said Hillier. "Maybe part of that is because we saw so much more of Euros and US leagues through video. I think it's a good draft. The top end is high-end and I think it's a deep crop. I think there will be good players available right through the draft."
Just as they did last year, the Jets will have their scouting staff available for input over a Zoom call during the two days of the draft.
Hillier is hoping they can be at the table with him next year.
"It's the biggest day of the year for all the scouts. All these guys put in a lot of work and miles all year," said Hillier. "I love the atmosphere at the draft table, the excitement and pressure it brings. You can't really duplicate that in a virtual set up.
"You can keep guys involved, but it's just not the same atmosphere. So I can't wait to get back to the regular set up."