For NHL fans, October signals the beginning of hockey season. For the Dallas Stars’ European scouting staff, opening night is in August. That’s when top under-18 players from around the world gather in Czech Republic and Slovakia for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
It doesn’t attract a lot of attention from the media or fans, but the tournament is a must see for NHL scouts, who can size up players who will take center stage at the NHL draft ten months later.
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“That’s a great start to the new season because you can cover a lot and get a great base to start with,” said Kari Takko, Director of European Scouting for the Stars. “That’s why lots of North American people come over for that one, too. We have our three European scouts there and two guys from North America.”
Those under-18 players will suit up for teams such as Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Canada and the United States.
“You see pretty much all the good players from everywhere,” said Stars scout Rickard Oquist. “You get a first look at them and see if they take off during the season or go the opposite way. That’s one of the most interesting and most fun parts of this job, to see how they develop during the year. “
It kicks off what will be a busy year for the Stars’ three European Scouts, who travel the continent tracking down potential players to draft.
Takko, the former Minnesota North Stars goaltender, heads up the operation. He handles Finland but will travel around Europe to look at priority prospects. Oquist, who is based in Stockholm, primarily covers Sweden but will also help out in Finland, Germany and Switzerland. Jiri Hrdina, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, handles his native Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia as his primary areas, and also covers Switzerland and Germany.
The Stars had scout Borys Protsenko stationed in Russia, but as of last year, he is now doing work out of Calgary. He continues to make trips into Russia, while Takko scouted Russia this past season, as well.
“I have a couple of more connections too, but I can’t tell you the names,” Takko said. “You get information from your connections that there is a player that maybe you should see. Central Scouting helps, too. They are well-connected, so they have players on their list. You may have to see that player at least once to get the feel to see if there is something to follow up and see him more.”
It seems as if there are always more prospects to see.
“It looks like Switzerland is starting to produce a little more now and Germany is getting there, too. So (coverage) is starting to be a little bit of a challenge,” Takko said. “We’d like to add a scout in one of those areas, Switzerland or Germany.”
And there are other countries as well. Takko’s connections and Central Scouting can help. So can the prevalence of tournaments.
“The first half of the season, I am trying to spread the guys around to those various tournaments where we are going to see those smaller countries,” Takko said. “I’m talking about Norway, there are other countries, but Norway is the best example. If one of our guys is there, it gives him the time to follow up in his own league if there is something there. Of course, you have to see everyone early on, but to keep track of those smaller countries you have to send people to those tournaments.”
Denmark is another country that needs watching, but Takko and his staff catch a break in covering there. Many of the top Danish players come to Sweden to play junior hockey, oftentimes well before they are eligible for the NHL draft.
“The best Danish players, if they want to be players, they are coming to Sweden at 15- or 16-years-old,” said Takko. “Most of them are moving to Malmo, which is 20 minutes by train from Copenhagen, or to Gothenburg.”
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That was the path to the NHL for Stars defenseman Philip Larsen, who as a 15-year-old, left Denmark to play junior hockey in Sweden for the Gothenburg-based Frolunda Indians. Among Larsen’s junior teammates with Frolunda were fellow Danes Mikkel Boedker (Phoenix Coyotes) and Lars Eller (Montreal Canadiens).
And it’s not just the Danes paving their way to the NHL through Sweden. Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar did it as well, leaving Slovenia at the age of 16 to play Swedish junior hockey.
“The junior system here is pretty good,” said Oquist. “Kopitar, for example, he played in my hometown of Sodertalje. All the players are well taken care of over here, and the education as far as hockey is really good, too. There are a lot of Danes coming over here, and Norwegians. Sweden has a good reputation for developing younger players.”
Identifying potential draft targets early in the season – whether they are playing in one of the key countries like Sweden or a smaller one like Norway – is one step of the process for the Stars’ European staff. Like their counterparts in North America, the scouts will track those players over the course of the season, see who makes progress and determine who looks like a priority.
A player’s skill set is important – his skating, his ability to handle the puck, his hockey sense and his desire to play – but not the most valuable quality.
“You have to have the character, the big heart,” said Takko. ”Even if you don’t have as much talent, if you have character, you can be a player at the end of the day.”
The scouts dig up background information on the players and put together a list that will help the Stars determine a final list for the NHL draft. Members of the European staff will venture into the regions of other scouts to give a second look to a high priority prospect. And of course, there’s a lot of communication.
“I talk to Kari almost more than I talk to my wife during the season,” said Oquist.
There are definitely challenges when it comes to scouting 17- and 18-year-olds in Europe. Players at that age can be playing at various levels, and they may play at several over the course of the season. They might be in an under-18 or under-20 league in juniors or at a higher level, including an elite league playing against men.
“When they are playing in the top leagues at 17, they are trying to survive, not make mistakes and they are not playing their own games,” said Takko. “It’s tougher to evaluate them if they are not in their own age group.”
“That’s why it can be hard sometimes if the player is just up with the big team and playing five or six minutes for the whole season,” added Oquist. “Then it’s hard to read the player, how good he really is. It helps when the player plays with both the big team and the junior team.”
Even sizing up a kid who is in junior hockey presents challenges at times. Center Emil Molin, drafted by the Stars in the fourth round of last year’s draft, put up big numbers in Swedish juniors his draft year, but there was a catch.
“We liked him a lot, but he played in the Under-18 league and usually the most skilled and talented players are playing in the Under-20 league,” said Takko. “But we saw that he had enough ability to jump on him in the fourth round. That was a challenge because he was in a league where some of the players were only 15-years-old. We don’t know yet if he is going to be a player, but he has all the tools.”
Ideally, Takko and his staff would like to see a draft-eligible European player in an under-20 league, but often times it doesn’t work out that way.
The scope of Takko, Oquist and Hrdina’s scouting goes beyond European players. They can provide insight on North American prospects as well, since kids from the United States and Canada play in tournaments held in Europe over the course of the season.
“The USA is a team we see a lot, because they are here in every tournament with their best team,” said Takko. “And this year, Rickard Oquist and I were over to North America twice to see the Canadian Hockey League to get a better comparison to the European players on our list.”
All that helps as the entire Stars scouting staff – both European and North American – hold conference calls and meetings to hammer out that final list the team will carry to NHL Draft weekend.
Although the number of European players being drafted out of Europe has dropped since the lockout, the Stars are still getting a steady number of players from overseas. And those players who end up recommended by the European staff get high marks from Stars Director of Personnel Les Jackson. They may not all get drafted, but Jackson said he’s confident Takko and his staff have put in the work to make sure those players are worthy of consideration.
“They’re the kind of guys you put over there and you don’t have to worry about them, you don’t have to call them to ask how things are going,” Jackson said. “You can trust they are delivering good players to us – whether they get drafted or not, that’s part of the process – but if they are recommending a player be added to our drafting list, you can count on them knowing the player, the background and that he would be a good pick for sure.”