Although the Florida summers provide plenty reason for one to sweat, the hot and humid climate outside the St. Pete Times Forum might not have been the primary factor that caused the Tampa Bay Lightning’s amateur scouting department to pat their foreheads and wipe their brows as they assembled in Tampa May 5-8. After all, they’re not used to this weather, but rather much colder climates. Whether standing inside an ice rink in Siberia or looking across a frozen pond in Rimouski, the perspiration, perhaps as a more direct result of their jobs and the impending NHL Entry Draft instead of their body temperature.
“We’ve been everywhere,” Lightning Director of Player Personnel Jim Hammett said. “Quebec, Belarus, Northern Russia, Prince George, all over the place looking at talent. A lot of being a scout is spent traveling either in a car or on an airplane, which requires you to be away from your family a lot. That’s probably the most challenging aspect of the job.”
“That, and the pressure to be right,” Head Amateur Scout Darryl Plandowski added. “That will really make you sweat.”
They have been right before. Both Hammett and Plandowski played essential roles in drafting young Lightning phenomena Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and two of the Lightning’s top offensive prospects in Carter Ashton and Richard Panik. In fact, the success of last summer’s draft – a year that also produced Kirill Gotovets, who will be representing Belarus at this summer’s World Championships, and Alex Hutchings, who nearly scored 50 goals while registering 81 points this season for the Barrie Colts of the OHL – adds to the excitement of the meetings in hopes of repeating an equally successful, or perhaps even more successful, selection process in 2010.
“Stamkos, I think, is the most complete player I’ve ever seen,” Hammett said. “He has to be right up there. His progression over the last three years prior to joining the Lightning has been amazing and we really found someone who possesses all the characteristics that define a great hockey player.”
Even though Stamkos’ rare combination of maturity, integrity and unrivaled skill is hard to find, the 20-year-old will serve more as a model than a deterrent to the Lightning brass as they prepare for this summer’s draft.
Hammett said that aside from the laborious hours spent in front of a computer judging a player’s talent, the purpose of the meetings will be to implement a round-table discussion with the team’s additional amateur scouts as well as acting general manager Tom Kurvers. During the meetings they will assess several players not only on talent alone, but also off-ice character, hockey sense, drive and maturity through personal, one-on-one interviews.
“I feel we’re in a great position with the sixth overall pick, so to really take advantage of it, we need to compile the best list of players that we can,” Hammett said.
Amateur scout Chris Snell asserted that typically the top five or six picks in the Draft are surefire locks who in most cases develop into players who either meet, or sometimes exceed, initial expectations. But although Tampa Bay’s 51-goal-scorer and the team’s second Rocket Richard Trophy winner might have been a can’t-miss prospect, selecting the top talent in a pool of about 700 potential NHL players presents its challenges, especially when drafting in the later rounds.
Much like with Tom Brady in the NFL, hockey has been graced with the stellar play of other late-round choices including Henrik Zetterberg, Brad Richards, Tomas Holmstrom and Jaroslav Halak.
“The late-round picks are really what makes your draft,” Snell said. “It’s very difficult to assess, but those are the guys who make a difference. Usually there isn’t too much of a disparagement between the top few picks, but if you can hit on one or two of those late guys it’s an added bonus.”
The Lightning have found their share of diamonds in the rough through the years, including Pavel Kubina (7th Round, 1996), Ryan Craig (8th Round, 2002), Paul Ranger (6th Round, 2002) and Karri Ramo (6th Round, 2004) just to name a few. Yet there are still late-round picks such as Johan Harju (6th Round, 2007), Dustin Tokarski (5th Round, 2008), Jaroslav Janus (6th Round, 2009) as well as Gotovets and Hutchings working their way up the ranks to Tampa Bay.
Still, the unexpected, yet pleasant success of late-round picks serves as an accurate testament to just how difficult day-to-day scouting operations can be. Proving and enforcing the theory that success in the draft is truly the life blood of an NHL organization.