If you were to take a look at the draft boards of all 30 NHL teams, there’s guaranteed to be a multitude of discrepancies.
“Like any team, we have guys who Central Scouting has rated in the first round not on our draft board,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. “You won’t draft them because they don’t fit the type of player we are looking to draft. Every team does that because they have their own criteria.”
So how did the Penguins determine that criteria and what, exactly, are they looking for in prospects?
According to Shero, figuring out what qualities the prototypical Penguins player should possess has been a work in progress since he arrived in Pittsburgh five years ago.
"We have kind of changed our criteria a bit,” he said. “As a manager, I feel like I am now better able to describe to our scouts the type of player our organization wants. I think it took a couple of years to find out exactly what we wanted because we were all new when we came here in 2006-07."
On the ice, the three qualities Penguins scouts look for in players that will stand the test of time are compete level, hockey sense and versatility.
It’s not always about the biggest players, explained assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who cited Sidney Crosby
(5-foot-10), Pavel Datsyuk (5-foot-11) and Henrik Zetterberg (5-foot-11) as prime examples. They’re looking for those players who have the will and desire to win battles on the ice.
“Those three are strong players and they find a way to get the pucks in the corner,” Botterill said. “But are they always getting the puck with big huge checks? Are they the biggest people out there? No, but their compete level is extremely strong, and that’s what we talk a lot about on our team.”
Hockey sense is also important to a team like the Penguins, with young stars like Crosby and Malkin who possess the type of elite skills that requires hockey smarts to complement it.
“You see with the system that Dan (Bylsma) runs, just the hockey sense (that is required) – we have some pretty high-end players on our team here in Pittsburgh,” Botterill said. “We’re looking for people who can have the hockey sense to play with these guys and be able to read off of these high-end players.”
Botterill concluded that versatility is a must with players in the Pittsburgh organization, explaining that having that type of flexibility allows prospects to reach the NHL quicker because the coaches have more options when it comes to putting them in the lineup.
But the evaluation process is far from easy, because the Penguins scouts’ reports place more emphasis on how that player’s skills project 6-7 years down the road, when they’re 24- and 25-year-old men.
So while the Penguins scouts do their due diligence off the ice investigating a player’s background and habits, which relates back to the aforementioned compete level.
“We’re drafting kids who are 18 years old,” Botterill said. “So one of the big things is what their habits are off the ice. Everyone is going to have to develop from where they are right now, so are they willing to put the time in? Issues such as work ethic and coachability are big.”
The scouting process has been a complete group effort, to say the least. The team’s draft philosophy is ultimately determined by Shero, Botterill, assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald, director of amateur scouting Jay Heinbuck, assistant director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton and director of player personnel Dan MacKinnon.
This group sets the criteria and provides it to their 12 regional scouts.
“They give us a document that I carry in my briefcase everywhere I go,” said Penguins amateur scout Ron Pyette. “I refer to it all the time to remind myself of what is important to us. It’s in the forefront all the time. … It’s all been given to us as a group to keep us on the same page. If you hire a bunch of scouts and don’t give them a criteria, then scout 1 who came from a different organization has a different idea of what a player should be versus another scout. Then you get a hodgepodge of players. We narrow in so there are less mistakes. That’s the whole philosophy behind it.”
The Penguins scouting staff puts in years of work leading up to the draft; then once the players are selected, it’s usually another few years before they potentially make the big-league roster. But the Penguins put in all that work because they trust in the lists they compile.
“In the end, we hope that we have done the job compiling our lists based upon potential,” Heinbuck said. “We know we have to keep the talent continuously flowing into the organization. When we see that, we know we have done our job.”