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Payoff: Draft day is culmination of scouting department’s year of hard work

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

They don’t get much recognition during the hockey season and do much of their work behind the scenes, but in the long run, they are crucial to any NHL club’s success.

They are the amateur scouts, who spend most of the year watching and evaluating hundreds of players in dozens of leagues around the world in preparation for the one event that they get to participate in - the NHL Entry Draft.

Tim Bernhardt, Mark Fistric and Les Jackson at the 2004 draft.
With this year’s draft beginning with the first round on Friday night (6 pm, VERSUS) followed by rounds 2-7 on Saturday afternoon, the Dallas Stars, like every team, get the opportunity to re-stock their cupboard of prospects.

And in this era of the salary cap, not to mention the Stars’ own even-more-stringent internal budget, the most direct and least costly way to add new elite-level talent to your organization is to select - and then develop - your own through the draft.

For the Stars, making sure they make prudent decisions is even more important than usual because they own just four picks - an NHL low - this year, after including some in prior trades. Overall, the odds of players selected beyond the first round, and especially after the second, developing into full-time NHL players are pretty low. The usual rule is that if you can come out of any given draft year with two guys who can have some sort of impact for your team down the road, it should be considered a success - and that’s assuming seven selections. With only four, it makes it even tougher.

“It’s a long process - you go through this whole thing we do all year trying to get two players,” said Dallas Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Bernhardt, who is usually the one that makes the announcement at the podium. “Actually, we’d like to get two, three or four, and sometimes you do. You try to get as many as you can, but it’s a slow process. You have to have a lot of patience to do this, that’s for sure.”

Part of the uncertainty is that the scouts are scrutinizing the play of 17- and 18-year-olds and then trying to predict how they’ll fill out physically and where their game evolve to four or five years down the road.  Clearly, it’s not a very exact science. 

“We’re trying to project what they’re going to be like at 25 years old, yet they’re 17-year-old players at the time,” longtime Stars scout Bob Gernander said. “There’s some guesswork and projection. We just hope we’re right a lot more than we’re wrong.” 

“It’s your overall gut feeling on a player as far as where he can get to,” Bernhardt added. 

Each full-time scout sees well over 100 games a season, primarily focusing on one specific geographic area, like the Canadian province of Ontario or the state of Minnesota. Then about midway through the year, the entire scouting staff meets and discusses the players they like, prioritizing guys they’d like to see more of and then setting up a cross-over schedule where scouts will travel to another one’s domain to get multiple evaluations on the higher-rated players. Ultimately, they like to have four or five different scouts view the priority players so there is a good cross-section of opinions.

“We break our group up into where we have three or four scouts go and follow up on all those players we’ve identified as priority players,” noted Stars Director of Scouting and Player Development Les Jackson, the man who oversees all scouting activities.“From that point, the area guys still stay in their area and they keep watching and evaluating as the season goes along.”

“After Christmas, when you’ve evaluated and identified everybody,” said Dallas scout Dennis Holland, “you make sure you’ve made the right evaluations and that the kids are better in March than they were in January and better than they were in October. It’s a process and that’s why you need to go in and see them more than once. If there’s somebody you like, you make sure you go in there and do your homework, see them play on the road as well as home. Talk to their coach, see what kind of person he is off the ice and see if he’s dedicated to working out and bettering himself.” 

When a scout looks at a player, he evaluates him in several different areas. First, he rates the player’s individual skills - such as his skating or shooting ability, ‘hockey sense’ (ability to read a developing play and react accordingly), physical prowess, and perhaps most importantly, character. Then he tries to determine how much the player can progress in the future, which, of course, is the great unknown in scouting.

“You take all the attributes, and you say, ‘This player has improvement potential,’ because that’s
really what you’re judging,” said Jackson. “Over the next four years, if this guy can improve in these areas, he has a chance to be a player. Your final answer, hopefully, is that he has the character and he’s the type of person who wants to work. One of the things you’re really watching is trying to read the player’s thinking process, how he reads the game, how he reacts to situations. That’s important, because that’s one thing you’d have a tough time training. You only win by playing a team game, and if you don’t get guys who don’t fit into that style, then chances are, you’re not going to succeed.” 

Comparing players from vastly differing levels of competition can also be challenging, but it helps keep the scouts focused on the player’s individual attributes, not necessarily how many goals he scores.

“We’re evaluating guys who might be playing high school in Minnesota compared to somebody who might be playing in (Russia’s top league, the KHL),” Holland said. “At times, you’ve got to scratch your head and step back. You’re evaluating for the future, you’re projecting in five years, ‘How good will that player be?’ You take in skating, size, hockey sense, commitment and intensity - you’ve got to take all that into consideration and make your decision. It’s funny how it all falls together after watching 175 hockey games (throughout the season).”

Of course, most players selected in the draft need several years of refinement before they are ready for the NHL. And depending on where they are coming from, there’s already a clock ticking. 

Those chosen from the top Canadian junior leagues (OHL, WHL, QMJHL), which typically account for over half of all players selected, have two years to sign a contract before the team’s claim to that player’s rights expires. NCAA players belong to a team until their college eligibility runs out, and that includes guys taken from lower-level junior leagues like the USHL or NAHL that then go on to play college hockey. European players used to remain a team’s asset indefinitely, but since the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 2005, they also have two years to sign with the club that chose them - and that’s resulted in significantly fewer Euros getting picked.

“Once you draft them, you really have to be patient and put them in situations where they can develop and learn,” Jackson said. “They’re kids and you’ve got to let them mature.” 

The season after a draft, the Stars still keep tabs on players chosen by other organizations.

“Although that’s not our primary job, we will try and note the progress of players, because they might come up in a trade or something,” Gernander noted. “Some teams may not sign a player and if we like him, we might be interested.” 

Blossoming prospect Aaron Gagnon, who led the AHL Texas Stars in scoring this past season and played key role in their march to the Calder Cup Finals, is a prime example of that scenario. He was initially selected by Phoenix in the eighth round (240th overall) in 2004, but they opted not to sign him and their rights to him expired, leaving him a free agent available to sign with Dallas in Feb. 2007.

As time goes on and some players do and don’t work out as NHLers, the scouting staff takes some time to reflect back on where they were wrong and where they were right about certain guys. 

“I don’t believe there’s a scout that’s ever made a decision that hasn’t been wrong in some cases,”Gernander acknowledged.   

“We’ve made some selections that haven’t worked out, so I think we’ve had every learning lesson there is,” Jackson admitted. “We’ve drafted guys high who haven’t worked out, we’ve drafted guys low who haven’t worked out, we’ve drafted guys real high who have been real good and we’ve drafted guys real low who worked out good, so we’ve got a wide range of good lessons to learn from. It’s up to us not just to evaluate the players, but to evaluate ourselves.”

The next chapter will be written for the scouting staff beginning Friday in Los Angeles, when the Stars pick 11th overall. They will be active early on Saturday, heading back to the podium in the second round (41st overall), third (71st), and fifth rounds (131st). Of course, that is all assuming the Stars don’t make any trades, either for players or additional picks. 

Either way, the proceedings this weekend will go a long way towards determining the organization’s  future success.

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