Scott Luce is expected to predict the future.
Easy, right? All he has to do is watch a 17-year-old kid play junior hockey, predict how much he’ll grow physically and mentally over the next five years, and then decide whether he has a future in the National Hockey League.
“There’s so much that goes into this,” said Luce, the Panthers’ director of scouting and the man who will help lead the Panthers at the NHL Entry Draft June 22 in Columbus, Ohio.
“The most difficult part is projecting what a player is going to be like at 22 when he’s more filled out and mature.”
It’s no easy task. Consider Alexandre Daigle being drafted No. 1 overall in the 1993 draft ahead of Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and Chris Gratton. Future Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk was the 27th overall pick in the ’85 draft and Chris Chelios, still going strong at 45 for the Red Wings, was the 40th pick in 1981.
“It’s not like the NFL or NBA drafts,” said Luce, who has helped the Panthers select Stephen Weiss
, Nathan Horton and Rostislav Olesz at previous drafts. “What you’re drafting in those leagues is what you're getting. In the NHL, what you’re drafting is not necessarily what you’re getting four or five years down the road.”
In an effort to select a future star – and those in this year’s draft could include forwards Patrick Kane, Kyle Turris or Alexei Cherepanov or defenseman Karl Alzner - Luce and his staff spend endless hours on the road driving to arenas from Kamloops to Kladno watching players, interviewing coaches and taking notes.
“Our first round pick, we’ll see collectively as a staff between 30 and 40 times,” Luce said. “I’ll see the high-end picks six to eight times. We’ll see them in different circumstances, too, and at different levels of play.”
Luce said the Panther staff identifies ‘prospects of interest’ in November during the team’s regional meetings and begins interviewing them and checking their character references.
“We’ll talk to them three or four times each, and that includes a lengthy interview at the NHL Combine,” Luce said. “Then, the Tuesday or Wednesday before the draft, we may talk to a prospect one more time...we’ll sort of kick the tire one more time. We’re still cultivating information the day before the draft.”
Panther coach Jacques Martin says the team is putting more emphasis on researching the character of players at the draft and also those becoming unrestricted free agents. The added emphasis will include hiring additional scouts.
“Character and attitude becomes an important ingredient,” Martin said. “An athlete has a skill set when he’s drafted but sometimes he doesn’t understand that only opens the door for him. Talking with coaches and educators is critical. It’s not only in amateur scouting but in pro scouting.
“You make a mistake on a free agent signing and it’s costly. Sometimes you’re signing free agents to three or four year deals for $12 million. That’s why we’re going to spend more money on scouts to do a better job all around.”
Making the right selections come draft day can turn any team into a Stanley Cup contender. The Sabres went into the Eastern Conference Finals with 13 of their players having come through the draft. Their opponents, Stanley Cup finalists the Senators, selected 12 of their players in the draft.
Over the past nine years, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Vincent Lecavalier, Eric and Jordan Staal and Ilya Kovalchuk have all been selected first or second in the draft. The Panthers have added to their lineup by selecting at recent drafts Stephen Weiss
, Rostislav Olesz, Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, David Booth and Gregory Campbell.
Luce is one of many draft experts who don’t see a consensus top pick in this year’s draft. E.J. McGuire, head of the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, said, “This year’s draft is very even at the top with no clear-cut number one.”
Said Luce: “There’s four players who could go first overall. There’s not a lot of separation at the high end. And after the first round I think it will become a little scattered, with people going off the board earlier and focusing on priorities.”
Central Scouting, which provides scouting and evaluation of draft eligible players, ranked the top 210 skaters and 30 goaltenders in North America and top 175 skaters and 16 goalies from Europe. Turris, a 6-1, 170-pound center, became the first Canadian Provincial Junior Hockey player to be ranked No. 1 by Central Scouting. Cherepanov, who won a gold medal at the Under-18 World Championships with Russia, as its top-ranked European player.