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Draft Day Is The Pinnacle For Stars Scouts

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

This is the fifth in a series of profiles on the Dallas Stars’ amateur scouting department as we inch closer to the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday, where the Dallas Stars are set to make the 13th pick in the first round, as well as seven more selections. Stars fans might not be as familiar with this year’s crop of future NHL stars as an NFL fan would be with a top Penn State linebacker or USC quarterback, for example. But rest assured, the Stars’ extensive group of amateur scouts is extremely familiar with them.

When Tom Gaglardi took over as owner as the Stars in November, he was clear about his vision for building a winner in the salary cap era.

“The only way to win is to build from within. You build and draft and develop and coach, so that’s the philosophy I come with,” Gaglardi said. “I think there have been enough cases throughout the NHL to show that you can’t buy a winner, so I believe in the old-fashioned way of building teams.”

Signing free agents can help, but they can be costly. And the pool of top-end free agents is shrinking, as teams lock up their best players and keep them off the market. That puts makes it even more important for a team to draft and develop its own players.

“It’s becoming more and more critical every year,” said Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “Teams make a conscious effort to sign their own, keep their own and keep them within their organization. That makes it all that more important that you draft well and develop well. You put a lot of time and effort into that. It’s our lifeline.”

The Stars will get a chance to pump some more life into their prospect pool with this weekend’s draft in Pittsburgh. The Stars have eight picks in this year’s draft, including the 13th overall selection in the first round and two more in the second round.

“It’s an opportunity to improve our future,” said Nieuwendyk.

Scott Glennie poses with members of the Dallas Stars organization after being drafted during the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre

The drafting philosophy for the Stars is to go with the best player available. By the time a kid is ready to play in the NHL – which can take some time – a team’s needs may have changed considerably.

Of course, there’s also the matter of what is in the prospect pool. The Stars have strength on the wings with prospects Matt Fraser, Alex Chiasson and Reilly Smith. There are some promising young defensemen on the horizon in Brenden Dillon, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth. Jack Campbell is in the goaltending pipeline. That’s led some to suggest the Stars should focus on centers in the draft.

“My experience is you should try to draft the best player available,” said Les Jackson, Stars Director of Player Personnel. “If the best player is a centerman, I’ll take him.”

Jackson believes the Stars have a shot at getting good prospects this year, even in the later rounds of the draft.

“It’s a good draft. I think there are players all the way through,” he said. “I think it’s our job to manage our list and make sure we are getting a shot at some of them.”

There are no guarantees in the draft. Some players will make it and others will not. There’s no ideal formula to predict what the future may hold for a 17- or 18-year-old kid, but diligence can pay dividends.

Jamieson Oleksiak was the fourteenth overall pick by the Stars during day one of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center

“It all starts with those regional guys going to the rink every night and looking for that guy who has a real passion to play in the NHL,” said Jackson. “If you could walk away with two or three players every year, you’d be doing really well, and some years you do that. Sometimes the players are there and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes we select the right guys and sometimes we don’t. There are a lot of variables, but if you walk away with two or three players a year, you’d be feeling pretty good about your staff.”

Who ends up on the list of players the Stars might take is a long process. Jackson and Director of European Scouting Kari Takko oversee ten amateur scouts who fan out over the globe, identifying and evaluating young talent. Scouts have started building books on some players two years before they are eligible for the draft.

“Compete (level) is huge for me,” said Jimmy Johnston, who scouts in Ontario. “You want players that compete and who are character kids. If they don’t compete, then you are banging your head against the wall.”

“At the end of the day it is not rocket science. You are looking for players that have the skill set – the skating, preferably the size and strength, and the competitive spirit,” said Dennis Holland, whose region includes the Western and British Columbia hockey leagues. “I think the tough part for us is who is going to be the better player five years from now. That’s the tricky part.”

Each scout is responsible for a region that includes certain leagues and a particular geographic region. The number of games a scout will see can top 200 in a season.

“You probably go every day,” said Johnston. “This season it was probably 240 games.”

Game reports are pumped into the computer. The Stars, along with almost every other NHL team, use a system designed by Rinknet Scouting Software. The Stars have their own customized version and there is no sharing of information among the teams.

“It’s the bible of your seasonal work,” said Jackson. “You keep track of your players, you start building your identification list, your evaluation list and then your selection list.”

Each scout is responsible for a selection list in his region with the players on it categorized by where they might be selected in the draft.

“It’s a relatively simple checklist if the guys are doing their work in the field, first identifying the guys with the criteria and attributes we are looking for, and then putting them into categories,“ Jackson said.

“I look at my list a couple times a week and evaluate who is better, who is worse, who do I feel is getting better,” said Holland. “It’s a process that goes over the course of the season. It’s not a list of 100 kids in May that is all jumbled up and you say, ‘how am I going to do this?’ It takes six months of work going over. It’s my baby.”

Those lists are key, as scouts start crossing over regions to give another look and another opinion on players. Johnston, the Ontario scout, saw games on 45 of the 60 days in January and February this past season. Many of them were within Ontario, but he also checked out junior games in British Columbia and Quebec, college games in Michigan and Boston and high school games in Minnesota and New England.

The more eyes that see the player the better, and it’s also important in helping the Stars put together their final team list for the draft. It doesn’t do anybody much good if only one scout has seen a player.

“If we have a guy in the top three rounds – sometimes by accident, but most of the time by plan – of any of the guys we’re selecting in the top three rounds, we’ve probably had numerous viewings by numerous scouts,” said Jackson. “There is quality cross-reference for sure.”

The process of nailing down the team’s final selection list for the draft starts around midseason. There are conference calls, meetings, more conference calls and more meetings. And there are debates.

“It is healthy conversation, even if sometimes it is pretty loud,” said Takko. “That’s what you need, different opinions to get it right at the end of the day.”

“A lot of people haven’t seen certain guys, so you’re fighting for a guy maybe you love against Kari, who loves a guy,” said Holland. “Maybe Les Jackson has seen them both or Shane Churla has seen them both, and you basically talk it out … and we make sure we’re all happy with where everybody sits.”

And even once the season has ended, the Stars scouts are digging up more information on potential draft picks, looking for details about the prospect beyond what happens on the ice.

“You’re always out there trying to find out more about the player,” said Bob Gernander, who is based in Minnesota. “These days, the personal interview is not the most effective thing to do because the players have been so well-schooled on that. They have agents. They know what questions we might ask and they can fool you a bit there. You have to do a lot of work with their coaches, teammates, former coaches and even maybe a school teacher to find out the character of the kids. You have to have good people in your organization and sometimes that is even more important than the skill they have.”

That final list will be discussed right up to draft day.

“We always have a good idea from February on who we are picking, but we always tweak it,” Jackson said.

NHL Central Scouting has more than 360 players ranked for this year’s draft, and some of the independent services have between 200 and 300 players ranked, but the Stars’ draft list is usually much smaller.

“If you go to the draft with 70 names, you generally have enough to get through the draft. That’s 70 guys you like, that’s 70 guys that your scouts value and would like to draft,” Jackson said. “We don’t put anybody on the list unless the scout in the region says ‘I stamp this guy as someone I want to draft.’ If they say he is just OK, then we take him right off the list. We’re a little bit critical that way. We make the guys step up. If they want a player they’ve got to step up, otherwise we don’t put them on the list.”

And those players on the list are broken down into groups based on where the Stars see them going in the draft – the same grouping the regional scouts used to put together their lists.

“We have three different groups and certain guys fit into the first group,” Jackson said. “For example, if we are picking 20th in the first round, we would be looking at how many guys we would be interested in that surround that pick up to 20, how far back we’d be willing to trade. That second group is basically made up of picks from 30 to 90. And the next group is made up of players that fit into the last four rounds – there are a lot of players that can fit into that group because only so many players have top-end ability.”

And then it is onto draft weekend. The Stars will head into the draft ready to deal with trade offers that either will move them up in the draft or move them down.

“We always look at two options. We know we are going to be picking at 13th, so we protect that first,” said Jackson. “The second is ‘would there be a player we’d like to move ahead for, so what’s the value of moving there’ and it’s the same thing with moving back. We generally have conversations right up to our pick with teams looking either to trade up if they’re behind us or teams looking to trade back.”

Once the Stars are ready to make their selection, it will be up to Jackson to make the call on which player to take.

“In the past it’s been Tim (Bernhardt, former director of amateur scouting) and I, but Tim’s not here anymore so it will be my choice,” Jackson said. “I use all the guys; we have a lot of input. It’s not like I am a dictator. It’s more of a democratic dictatorship because we need everybody’s input, but in the end somebody has to make the choice on who we are selecting, because if you ask the scouts they’d all have a different voice.”

For the Stars’ scouting staff, draft weekend is the culmination of a lot of hard work, long hours and grueling travel.

“Every time we get on the bus and head to the arena for the draft, I get butterflies in my stomach,” said Rickard Oquist, whose primary coverage area is Sweden.

“It’s the pinnacle of your season,” said Churla. “It’s exciting. You’ve done all that running around and all that work for that day. But it doesn’t end there. You call that person’s name and it’s just begun.”

That’s because the draft is just one part of the drafting and developing process. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the quest to turn that draft pick into an NHL player.

“Once we draft a player, it’s our responsibility to try to develop that player,” said Gernander. “That’s an important part of it, the development the next two or three years – where he is going, who he is going to be handled by. Then you have to sign that player and once he gets into our organization there is a lot of work.”

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