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Behind the Scenes with the Nashville Predators at the 2022 NHL Draft

Lifting the Curtain on Nashville's Meticulous Process of Finding Its Draft Picks

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / Guest Contributor

Montreal, Quebec (July 8, 2022) - From the outside how the National Hockey League's 32 teams navigate the annual draft might seem like a series of random events only loosely connected.

Over the course of two days each of the teams will call out the names of a handful - six or seven or eight on average - names of teenage players. Adding to the sense of randomness is the fact the last six rounds players are selected via disembodied voices calling out those names at breakneck speed from the comfort of the microphones at the team's respective draft tables crowding the arena floor at the Bell Center in Montreal.

And from the reactions of every player and those players' families and friends who have gathered with them for this life-altering event there is, regardless of which round the name is called, a sense of having won some kind of lottery.

The reality is that what transpires for a team like the Nashville Predators as they prepared for the 2022 draft in Montreal, the first in-person draft in three years, is vastly different and not so random at all.

The six players the Predators selected through the seven rounds of the draft represent a kind of cumulative thing and entirely connected.

Those players represent the culmination of many smaller seemingly unrelated events that have taken place over many months and that represent literally thousands of miles traveled. 

In some way the distance traveled both literally and figuratively leading up to the draft, as players' stocks have spiked or declined or perhaps spiked and declined and spiked again over the time the Predators' scouts and upper management have been watching them play is incalculable. 

That's why a moment like the one that the Predators found themselves in during Round 1 of the 2022 draft is both nerve-wracking and immensely gratifying because the stakes are literally as high as they can be for an NHL team. Because if you cannot identify the proper players leading up to the draft and then develop them properly you can have almost no chance at sustained success in the NHL and its salary cap structure. That is the cold, hard reality of life in a salary cap world.

"That's why they term it as the life blood," Jeff Kealty, Nashville's assistant GM and Director of Scouting said of the draft. "You've got to have these young players that can come up and play on entry-level contracts."

The Predators' scouting team has been together a long time and the term family is bandied about when we discuss the relationships that have evolved over the years. And the team's successes reflect that familial reality.

The Predators have played in postseason competition eight straight seasons and in 10 of the past 13 seasons. And that consistent level of success starts with the scouts who are scouring the hockey world for players that might some day don a Predators jersey in the NHL.
"You can term it really as the Super Bowl for scouts," Kealty said a few hours before the Predators were on the clock for their first-round pick on Thursday night. 

"But that being said you have to have the right mindset for it and with that how you prepare is what helps you have the right mindset for it," added Kealty whose playing career with the Predators organization was cut short by injury in 1999 and who joined the scouting staff shortly after.

The Boston University standout never left the organization and even though the team's only GM, David Poile, celebrated his 25th anniversary as Predators' GM on a day after the draft, this is Kealty's show.

"If you do all your work and you're prepared for everything that's going to come your way it gives you confidence and keeps you kind of level-headed to deal with the things that come your way over the couple of days," Kealty explained.

Inside the Predators' draft war room high atop the Chateau Champlain Marriott in downtown Montreal, a short walk from the Bell Center, the final touches are being put to months of work. Specifically the final touches are being put to the draft list that is the holy document that all teams work from as they make their way through seven rounds of selections.

The Predators share a floor in the hotel with a couple of other NHL teams, San Jose and Minnesota, and occupy a long meeting room with a temporary wall that can slide open or closed. On the day before the draft the room is split in two.

Poile and the pro scouting staff are meeting on one side of the partition while Kealty and his right-hand man Tom Nolan, Chief Amateur Scout, and the rest of the scouting staff are on the other side.

There is a pull-down screen on which the Predators' draft list is projected. 

The list quite naturally starts with the first overall pick and continues through seven rounds of potential picks. 

There are natural breaks in the Predators' draft list which the staff after weeks of discussion have agreed on. For instance there is a break after the 13th name on the list. Those 13 players the scouting group have decided are a cut above the rest of the players in terms of their skill set and potential.

The Predators are set to select at the 17th spot so that line is critical because if none of the players in their top 13 are available - and there is more than a little likelihood that they won't be - it means the team might then consider moving back in the draft to pick players they are confident they could obtain and perhaps add more assets through the process.

At one point on the Wednesday afternoon Poile joined the amateur group to get an update.

"Are we trading the pick?" Poile asked the group that includes European scouts Martin Bakula, Lucas Bergman and Janne Kekalainen and North American scouts J.P. Glaude, Glen Sanders, David Westby and Greg Drechsel.

It's quiet for a moment.

"Give me odds," Poile asked with a smile.

Nolan puts the odds at 60-40 that they will keep the pick.

Kealty joins the pro group for discussions about potential moves of players already with the organization something that is part of the draft dynamic every year and which will be evident in Montreal when Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat, Tony DeAngelo, Ville Husso and Vitek Vanecek are among the NHL regulars moved during the draft gathering.

The Preds will make their own move on the second day of the draft trading Luke Kunin to San Jose for John Leonard and a third-round pick in the 2023 draft.

As he departs the table Kealty suggests to the group to take another look at the first-round cut-off list.

He wants the group to be on the same page the next night about the players and their potential value if any of the top 13 are still available.

"Otherwise we're into trading picks," he said.

As it turned out the Predators didn't need to worry about trading the pick. 

Just past the mid-point of what was a raucous first round of the 2022 draft Kealty stepped to the podium and announced they had selected Joakim Kemell from Finland. With Poile and the rest of the scouting and development staff gathered on the podium it was Kekalainen who handed Kemell the Nashville jersey with No. 22 on the back to pull on for the first time.

Fast forward a couple of hours, back in the team war room at the Chateau Champlain.

Members of the Predators draft team start to wander into the board room. Many have stopped off in their rooms to change out of suits and into casual clothes. There is an air of if not celebration at least a sense of having successfully accomplished the first important task of the draft.

Others around the hockey world are praising the Predators' pick calling the Kemell one of the steals of the first round. The scouts are sharing stories gleaned from other teams who had Kemell in the top 10 of the draft. He was number seven on the Nashville list.

His name came up briefly on Wednesday. Did anyone in the group think he would drop enough that he could be on the Nashville radar?

No.

It's why, unlike other first-round picks, there was no name plate for the back of Kemell's jersey because they felt he was too good a prospect to be there at the 17th pick.

It's the kind of thing that may become part of the team's scouting lore like finding Roman Josi, one of the top defensemen in the world, with the 38th pick in 2008.

Kemell is the whole package from his shot to quickness.

"He's elusive," Nolan said. "He's competitive."

Kemell was leading the Finnish Elite League (Liiga) in scoring when a shoulder injury disrupted his draft season perhaps warning teams off the high-octane winger.

Now, against the odds, Kemell a Predator.

Nolan shook his head.

"You just never know with the draft," he said.

There are boxes of pizza on one counter and there are some jokes about the scarcity of beer.

"This is work," one scout mentioned with a laugh.

And it's true (even if is a sampling of beer does arrive later). 

With the wall rolled back the scouts take up their usual seats at the two tables. The amateur group goes over the lists for the final six rounds. 

It promises to be a bit of a grind as the Predators enter Day Two without a second-round pick but two picks in both the third and fourth rounds with the two third-round picks two apart. Although one of the fourth-round picks will end up being traded to Toronto for a 2023 fourth-round pick there is a lot of work to be done as the Predators will the draft selecting six players in total.

It's not all nose to the grindstone.

As the clock ticked towards midnight on Thursday night Poile moved from the pro table to the amateur table to take a poll on how many of the famous Bell Center hot dogs each of the staff have devoured during the first round. The numbers vary but suffice to say the chien chaud remain an integral part of any visit to the home of the Montreal Canadiens.

The timetable for the following day is set including check-out procedures and a look ahead to the team's development camp that will be held in Nashville in a few days' time.

The draft process never really stops especially with summer tournaments like the delayed World Junior Championship now set to resume in Edmonton in August and various international tournaments scheduled for later in the summer that will lead into the start of the 2022-23 seasons.

There is an element of alchemy to the entire proceedings. And, really, what better comparison could there be for what the scouts and development staff are trying to achieve in projecting which teenage boys, playing the same game but at different levels all over the world, will become NHL talent than the medieval study of turning base elements into gold.

"You'll see the scouts they get their guy in the fifth round or whatever it is and these guys have been traveling and driving through snowstorms and doing everything all year long and they get to get their guy so it's an exciting and a rewarding day on all fronts," Kealty said.

The Predators do their work a little differently than some teams. While some clubs rely on the top scouts to produce their draft lists the Predators produce the list as a group. They also meet before the draft combine in the spring to discuss the list and their thoughts on players before the combine which they believe this gives them a better base from which to conduct their interviews with the prospects. 
In some ways the list is a living, breathing entity.  

"I wouldn't say guys move from the first round to other rounds (as the list evolves), but guys move up and down a little bit. It's kind of a gut thing," Nolan said. "It's kind of a science thing. It's kind of everything and you've got to have a good feel and one of the things we always tell our guys don't just put a guy on the list to have him on the list put him on the list because you want to draft him because it's so hard to make the NHL and you've got to have passion for these guys."

Along with the scouts themselves the Predators are also incorporating a lot more analytics to the process relying on the work of Matt Hamann and Dalton Linkus to provide important analytic information that goes into the list's construct. 

Over the course of the time we spent in the draft room, we are struck by the encyclopedic knowledge of the players by all the scouts.
In discussing each segment of the draft, various players' attributes are assessed in rapid succession. 

How has a certain player they fared done after an injury? What is a player's relationship like with their teammates and/or coaches? 

The scouts discuss players who have had discipline or off-ice issues or whose work ethic has been questioned by their sources.

At one point Drechsel offers to call a coach he knows about a prospect they've discussed as a group a couple of times.

Kealty warns that they want to make sure they aren't drafting any deadwood.

"What position does he play, Deadwood?" Kekalainen cracks.

"Left out," another scout quipped.

There is more than a little emotion involved in this ongoing process.

Although the Predators don't end up selecting a goalie in this draft, Kekalainen becomes quite emotional talking about a European prospect that has fallen out of favor in the scouting world.

He insists some of the information available is old and inaccurate and that he believes this player might be the best goaltender in the draft and he's happy to put his stamp behind the player if the team wants to go in that direction.

"I think I have him figured out really well," Kekalainen said.

The idea that scouts who are working toward a common goal feel free to share disparate opinions on players and their potential fit isn't just encouraged it's critical to success.

"It's hugely important," Kealty said. "I equate it very similarly to the nature of any team. You've got to have good chemistry to the way you work. You've got to push each other. You've got to challenge each other. But I think everybody knows that at the end of the day we're trying to make the right decision. That everybody has their opinions and everybody respects each other's opinions. Sometimes things will get heated and whatnot but there's never any hard feelings to it because we have good people. We have people who care about getting it right and care about one another and care about the organization. That's what you want."

It's not just about talking when it comes to making the list as good as it can be it's about hearing, too, Nolan added.

"You've got to listen, it's a listening business," Nolan said. "You've got to take guys' feedback. Most of the guys here have been together for a long time so we trust each other. We have our disagreements but at the end of the day it's Jeff's decision and I try to help him out but we do listen. Our staff listens to each other."

The view from the suites high above the draft floor at the Bell Center is spectacular. From the suites you get a sense of the scope of what is arguably the most important two-day period in the NHL season. All 32 teams sitting cheek to jowl at their tables trying to pave their way to, ultimately a Stanley Cup, but at the very least to competitiveness or in some cases relevancy.

The suites are where the prospects who are in Montreal with family and friends will eventually make their way.

We are in the Nashville suite when Kasper Kulonummi arrives having gone through the post-draft regimen of photos and providing information to league staff in areas off the arena floor and then meeting with the media at one of the pods set up interviews.

Kulonummi, the 84th pick in the draft, is met by development coaches Rod Scuderi and Sebastien Bordeleau. Scuderi, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, will handle the defense development while Bordeleau, an original Predator in 1998, handles development of the forwards.

In some way this is the metaphoric handing over the reins organizationally.

The amateur scouting staff have done their job in presenting the organization with this player - and the five others selected in this draft - now it is up to the development staff to ensure that these next couple of seasons, whether they continue playing with their current teams or advance to the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee, take the necessary steps to achieve their potential and hopefully someday become NHL players.

"We're here to follow you and help you to make the NHL in Nashville," Scuderi tells Kulonummi. "We're here to help. Don't ever be afraid to reach out to us."

Not long after Adam Ingram and his family make their way into the suite.

Ingram, the 82nd pick, is a big, late-blooming forward who has gained about four inches in height in the last few years and had an impressive season with Youngstown of the USHL.

Unlike Kulonummi who arrives on his own, Ingram has his grandmother, Janet Jones, uncle Don, older brother Brent and parents Derek and Kim along.

It's an exciting time for the entire family who make their home just outside Winnipeg. 

Ingram's father, Derek, is the coach of the Canadian national amateur golf team and is coach to a couple of PGA Tour members.

Derek described a kind of nervous anticipation as they waited on Day Two of the draft to see when or if Adam would be selected. Then, to find out it was Nashville was especially exciting.

"It's definitely a dream come true for all of us," Derek said. "We were all very emotional. We were a little bit nervous but probably more grateful to be here. Very thankful."

And there's the rub about the draft.

It's a chance for everyone who is part of the machinery, parents, families, players, coaches, scouts, executives, development staff, to pause for a moment at least and take in the enormity of what it takes to get to this point.

The work isn't finished for anyone least of all the players. But for a brief time at least there will be a pause to appreciate what has transpired to get to this point and to contemplate what this will all mean down the road for those selected and the teams that have put their faith in them.

"In terms of building the team in general when you're mostly homegrown and you have a good culture then they come into your system they learn the right way, they become NHL players the right way," Kealty said.

"You look at Roman Josi, Juuse Saros, these guys they come up and they've gone through it and they've learned from people before them like Roman Josi learned from Shea Weber, Juuse Saros learned from Pekka Rinne," Kealty added. "They say you don't grow up like your neighbors you grow up like your parents. I think you like to think that's the way you want to build your team as well."

This story written by Special Contributor Scott Burnside.

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