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The Life: Amateur Scout

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Many long-time hockey fans have the same dream job. They want to be an NHL scout.

They think about heading out to games all over North America and, maybe even Europe, to watch hockey, evaluate young players and try to project their talents as they get older. Can anything be much better if you love the game?

Probably not, and most veteran NHL scouts will agree. But don’t forget about the sacrifices. The life of an amateur scout can provide many rewards, but there is plenty of depth to what they need to do to be successful.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Lightning Director of Player Personnel Jim Hammett, a former head amateur scout with the Rangers and a scout with the Avalanche for eight years. “People think we just go to games, watch and go home. There’s a lot of background, interviews and computer work involved. It comes down to work ethic and trying to be consistent with what you are doing.”

Hammett has run into his share of deer or ditches on the lonely roads of Western Canada, sat in rinks where there was frost on the wall, been away from home for what seemed like months.

Darryl Plandowski, the Lightning’s head amateur scout who spent two years with Pittsburgh and eight with Buffalo as a scout, has seen a lot of the same.

“Being able to watch good hockey players – that’s the gravy,” Plandowski said. “The negative is the second half of the year you are away 25-26 days a month and there’s no way around it. No matter where you live, you have to go where the players are.”

That’s not to say the hunt for the big prizes can’t be challenging and fun.

A process of evaluation

The process begins early. The Lightning are currently completing their board, which will end up with about 150 names on it, for the NHL Entry Draft June 25-26 in Los Angeles. An initial under-age list has already been compiled for the 2011 draft.

Once the 2009 draft was over, the scouting staff worked on a priority list for the 2010 draft and went to work. A decade or more ago, there wasn’t much going on in the summer, but there are national evaluation camps, tournaments in Europe and many other competitions to scout these days.

When the junior and college seasons begin in the fall, it’s time to hit the road. Plandowski said you have to have good people, because there aren’t enough days in the year to cover the games you need to get to.

“I think the top 100 players we’ve seen from a minimum of two to a maximum of 10 times in person,” Hammett said. “Throughout the course of the year, we try to gather information from GMs, coaches, respective scouts, agents. There are a lot of different resources. We try to get as much background on the kids as we can.

As a fourth round pick in 2008, James Wright is a recent example of how late round picks can make an impact with a NHL franchise. Wright played 48 games with Tampa Bay in 2009-10 and even saw time on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

“You want to know the basics. What mom and dad do, what’s his family is like and what have the trends have been with him? The biggest thing is to make sure you have no red flags.”

It would be easy for a scout’s head to spin on certain nights.

“Most times, there’s two guys on each side you are watching closely,” Plandowski said. “But you’re also playing attention to the 20-year olds who are potential free agents, and other teams’ drafted players because they may come up in trades. But our main focus is to nail the draft coming up and get your list right.”

Plandowski said it’s important to find junior and college coaches that you can trust to give you the straight deal on a player. Sometimes what you hear doesn’t jive with what you see.

It takes time for everything to come together in evaluating an individual player.

“It depends on the player you’re watching, but you are looking for consistent characteristics that a kid has,” Hammett said. “You make sure that you’re seeing him do things night in and night out.”

Hammett said postseason play is a nice gauge for how a player progresses, but good players are noticeable whether it’s game one or game 80.

One aspect of the scouting year that has gained importance is the NHL combine. The physical tests at the combine give teams some numbers to work with, but the interviews often get more focus. Hammett said it gives the team a chance to get a sense for a player.

“You are able to talk to him for 20-25 minutes and get an idea of whether the kid has his head screwed on right,” Hammett said. “You can just tell when you are talking to a kid. I’m just real big on getting quality people. If there’s a guy that is a little ahead [in skill] of a quality guy, I’d rather go with the quality guy. You just try to picture a guy that could be walking around your locker room, someone you’d be proud to have people interact with.”

The draft has always been incredibly important. You don’t have to look past what the Detroit Red Wings have done over the years with both their higher and lower-round picks. Still, some teams regularly traded prospects and picks for veteran talent.

Balancing long-term success with short-term needs

In the salary-cap era, it has become even more important to stock the shelves with prospects. The Lightning have five picks combined in the third and fourth rounds next month (eight overall).

“It’s too hard to go out and spend every year,” Hammett said. “You’ve got to have these guys coming up and pushing each other for jobs.”

“We were talking about it the other day,” Plandowski said. “I don’t even think you can buy a draft pick these days, because they are so important. I think even the teams that didn’t used to value the draft much and used to trade these guys away are seeing how important they are.”

Draft day is the time for scouts to shine, but the results often come years down the road. Did they get their top picks right? Did they find a late-round jewel?

There are no instant bonuses. In fact, job security for the average scout is not high.

“That’s part of the job,” Hammett said. “It’s part of life that if you have somebody new coming in where there potentially could be a change in philosophy. At the end of the day, we’re a performance-based business.”

Scouts often don’t get long-term deals.

“You can’t worry about it,” Plandowski said. “It eats you up if you’re worried about what’s going to happen next year. Scouts are a little different, because we’re always looking into the future. It’s not just next year. There’s a lot of guys who were pushed out the door and other people take credit for their draft picks. It happens with every team. Sometimes it’s going to work for you and sometimes it works against you. But if you’re worried about that, it affects your job.

“[Scouts] don’t make a lot of money and it’s a tough lifestyle, especially when you have young kids. You just hope you do well, people appreciate it and notice your hard work, and you get rewarded.”

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