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An inside look at the Oilers year-long scouting process

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers
Oilers scouts look over their complete list in the war room before the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa.

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When Oilers GM Steve Tambellini steps up to the podium to announce the draft’s first-overall selection this Friday, it will be the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of labour put in by head scout Stu MacGregor and his scouting staff.

When Tambellini and MacGregor sit down at the draft table, there will be a ranked list of the top 150 prospects at their disposal. The position of every prospect in the rankings will have been debated numerous times by that point to ensure as accurate a position as possible for each.

MacGregor notes that the actual scouting process begins around the middle of summer.

"The draft process for each particular year starts about August. The first big tournament of the year is the Ivan Hlinka Cup in Czech Republic and Slovakia," he said. "The best players are playing for their particular national teams. We're able to assess them. We'll send two scouts from North America and we'll have our European Scouts there as well."

Using 2010 as a specific example, the Ivan Hlinka tournament was one where Tyler Seguin in particular first caught notice of amateur scouts around the NHL.

"That was his coming-out party to be very honest. He had a good 16-year-old year in the OHL but he really took his game forward from that point on."

Seguin had 10 points in four games to help lead Team Canada to a Gold Medal.

"We started a schedule to make sure we were viewing him as close as possible (after the tournament)," MacGregor remarked.

Following the tournament, the schedule really starts to pick up for the scouts. In late August, plenty of European leagues open their schedules for the season followed in mid-September by Canadian Major Junior hockey.

"We go into the junior league regular seasons, plus our European scouts follow the leagues over there in Europe. They also cross-over and see some of the pro games," MacGregor said, noting that a lot of top European prospects are already playing pro – as Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson was during his draft year for Timra of the Swedish Elite League.

The list is rather extensive to start but as the season gets underway, it gets more and more narrowed down in order for the team to focus their attention on the higher-end prospects. The scouting staff will double back on coverage if there was a player injured they would like to see before the mid-term meeting.

"We get to January where we have our mid-term meeting. We narrow our lists down there a little bit. We make sure we cross-reference with (Central Scouting's rankings) which come out at that time," MacGregor remarked.

Oilers scouts gather around the table to discuss the top three picks for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montreal.

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As the junior season begins to wind down in February, MacGregor ensures that scouts have seen all the players they need to see.

"Some teams you need to catch up on as the regular season games are ending, to make sure you have the required viewings. Make sure you have any questions you have answered."

The Central Scouting final rankings list comes out in April. At this time, MacGregor and the Oilers scouts cross-reference that list with their own.

Scouts are broken up into different regions in terms of coverage but once the season hits the midway point, they’ll cross over into other territories to ensure the team has as complete a book as possible on as many players as possible.

"It's impossible for every scout to see every player. What you try to do is, once you narrow your list down, you want to get as many viewings as possible of the top players on your list," MacGregor said. "(Every scout) certainly will see all of the players in the top 30."

With so many prospects spread across the globe, it’s impossible for everyone to see everybody.

"If one scout doesn't see them but seven others do then you've got real good coverage of that particular player."

MacGregor himself ensures that he sees every player in the team’s top 60.

"It's important that I have the viewing personally on the top-end players – and that's my focus once we have the mid-term list done."

The scouts congregate at the Memorial Cup annually where a number of the draft’s top prospects are certain to be playing. From there, a select few scouts along with MacGregor, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini and President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe head to the NHL Scouting Combine.

The Scouting Combine is comprised of two parts. First, each team will interview a number of players. Some teams end up interviewing as many as 85 or 90 of the event’s 100 participants. Teams don’t have a lot of time for each interview but they try and touch base with as wide a selection as possible.

"It really is a very short process. It's 20 minutes with each player. You don't have a lot of time to do anything more than put a name to a face,” MacGregor commented.  “You do get to ask some questions, but it's a very short interview. Most of it is background. You try to visit with them throughout the season so the interview process is just a final part of the puzzle.”

The second part is the rigorous fitness testing that each player is put through. For a lot of teams, this part carries more weight and players can really improve their draft standing with a strong performance on this particular day.

"The one interesting fact is the fitness part of it. It gives you projection into what they might be physically down the road," MacGregor said.  

Following the Scouting Combine the scouts, along with team management, get together to try and get a complete finalized ranking. These meetings generally occur in early June and take place in the Okanagan – where MacGregor is based.

These meetings can get very heated as each scout defends what they determine to be “their” player or players. Every tiny aspect of the rankings list is debated extensively to try and ensure as complete a list as possible. For instance, this year despite the Oilers picking first overall followed by 31st in round two, there would still be heated debate over whether Cam Fowler, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Gormley or Brett Connolly should get the third overall ranking.

"It's vital to be able to work through the complete list and try to evaluate and place the players in the proper position"

After the list is finalized, the scouts go their separate ways for a few weeks before meeting once again at the site of the draft. For this particular draft, the scouts are meeting today (Tuesday, June 22) in Los Angeles to see if there are any changes.

"We'll discuss as long as we need to discuss on a particular player or ranking on our list," said MacGregor.

Throughout the week, scouts and management will go over any further testing the prospects might have taken as well as bring the odd player in for a first or second interview if they’re particularly undecided on a certain ranking position.

The scouts meet again on Thursday or Friday for final preparations before handing over their complete list to Tambellini.
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