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The Life: Professional Scout

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
Defenseman Mattias Ohlund signed a 5 year deal last summer on the first day of 2009 free agency. (Photo by Mike Stobe)

The life of a professional hockey scout is about knowledge.

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The depth of information, the value of what it shows, can turn a team’s fortunes around. One good evaluation can get a team over the hump and into the playoffs. One bad call can hurt them for years.

You have to be very good, and a little lucky.

“We’re a group,” said Greg Malone, the Lightning’s head pro scout. “We win as a group. We make mistakes as a group. It’s not all on one guy. We sit at meetings and all have our input.

“The most satisfying thing is looking at the standings after a trade or picking up a free agent, and the kid you acquired comes in playing well and you see your team growing together.”

Malone, starting his third season with the Lightning, has been joined by fellow pro scouts Gerry O’Flaherty and Mike Butters. Pat Verbeek, who recorded 1,063 points in his NHL career, was recently added to the staff after spending the last four years with the Detroit Red Wings.

There is a lot of work and thousands of miles traveled to get to those critical moments where strong advice is needed at a moment’s notice.  It starts now when all the information gained over the last year is discussed in meetings as Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman goes to work building the 2010-11 Lightning roster.

“Last season, the management team had a certain idea of what types of players they wanted,” said Butters, who started last season as General Manager of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk. “Our task was to go out and find those types of players.

“They call it scouting. We’re actually spying in a sense, looking at other teams to see what they have. You might see that thing in a guy that fits what we’re looking for.  With Yzerman, and his view of the team, things will change. My job is to take his guidance and look for the types of players he wants.”

When the Lightning’s professional scouts got together for training camp last September, they divided up North America to conquer.

There are 29 other NHL teams and 29 American Hockey League rosters to keep close watch of and see in person as much as possible. That was the mission.

“We break it up and those are your teams,” Malone said. “You have to know them inside and out, their young players, their older players and who might be available to trade for.”

O’Flaherty, who has been a Lightning scout since 2003, is based in Vancouver and handles most of the teams in the West. He travels to California, Phoenix, Texas, Chicago and Alberta for the most part. He also made his first trip to Europe this year.

Everyone does their own schedule for much of the year. O’Flaherty sets up his hockey road map so he can see a game per day when he is away from home. He saw 159 games last season and wrote 159 reports, making five trips to Tampa.

“We spend most of our time writing reports,” O’Flaherty said, laughing.

Certain times of the year get busier.

“Preparing for the trade deadline is the toughest period,” O’Flaherty said. “Most of February, you are really on the go.

“We’re often reviewing each other’s work. In the hockey world, you aren’t going to see a player no one else has seen. There are no hidden gems.”

You can see something that might click in Tampa though. O’Flaherty, who played 438 NHL games starting in 1971, said he is looking for skating ability, hockey sense and skill for starters.

Malone, the father of Lightning wing Ryan Malone, lives in Pittsburgh and has primarily handled the Eastern teams. He often tries to catch games in Pittsburgh in the middle of the week and travel on the weekends.

“The nice thing about it is you look forward to going to games,” Malone said. “There’s always something different to see.”

Butters was assigned to check out a lot of college games last season, along with other duties, looking primarily at players that were not drafted.

“You’re looking at guys that may have slipped through the cracks along the way,” Butters said. “It’s an older man’s game and you are looking at 23-, 24-year old guys and seeing how they compare to our current guys in Norfolk. Are there college players that can step right in and play? One of the biggest challenges is it’s not a perfect science.”

One thing that is different for pro scouts these days is the addition of video coaches.

“The technology has changed,” said Malone, who had 501 points in 704 NHL games. “A lot of clubs are going with more video. Before, you used to have advance scouts who did reports. Now coaches can pick that up off video.”

The salary cap has also changed the way scouts look at talent, making decisions on whether a team should spend money on a player at all or to overspend to give them a better chance to land him.

The job now is to come up with the best lists possible. Who will make the team better as a free agent? Who best will fill a hole in the lineup? Who should be targeted on the trade front?

The pro scout has to have answers, recommendations.

What’s the best reward?

“You want to make a difference for the team you are working for,” O’Flaherty said. “Picking a cherry that another team was not interested in, bringing him in and seeing him fulfill what you saw in him is the best feeling.

“The most challenging thing is making the right choices.”

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