Making A List

With the final series of both the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup playoffs well underway, the end of the 2006-07 hockey season is upon us and the summer season of personnel moves and salary cap shuffling will soon be upon us. Before that of course, the NHL will conduct its annual Entry Draft. The 2007 draft will take place June 22-23 in Columbus, OH.

As much as it pained me to take leave of the Hershey Bears for a few games, I spent the past weekend in Toronto at the NHL’s annual draft combine. Scouting staffs, general managers and personnel men gathered for the better part of a week, as the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau put more than 100 of this year’s top draft prospects on display for them to see. All of the top prospects – those expected to go in the first round of the draft – were in attendance, but at least one player who is listed under “Round 7, North American skaters” in the CSB’s annual rankings was also in Toronto at the combine last weekend.

I was fortunate to be able to sit in on the Capitals’ draft interviews over the period of a few days, and was in attendance as GM George McPhee, scouting director Ross Mahoney and the rest of Washington’s scouting staff interviewed a few dozen players. Mahoney and the scouts have been watching these and other players for years. I’ve never seen any of them play live hockey, but was able to get to know them better via the interview process.

Some of these teenagers will be members of the Capitals’ organization less than three weeks from now. What McPhee, Mahoney and the scouts have seen on the ice from these kids over the last months and years is and always will be the largest determining factor as to which players are taken with which picks. It is simply not practical to draft for need in the NHL; players are 17 or 18 years old when drafted but most don’t fully ripen and mature into NHL players until they are into their 20s, if even then.

The combine itself – in which players are tested in a variety of more than a dozen physical, mental and medical tests – gives scouts and general managers a glimpse into the players’ individual commitment to conditioning and a chance to see how well developed and cared for their bodies are. The CSB supplies NHL teams with post-combine data regarding how well players performed in each of the tests here this weekend.

Scouting teenagers and trying to predict their ability and success levels several years down the road is and always will be a supremely inexact science. Endless variables are at play that can and do impact the players as they develop. Some of the best teenaged players never live up to their draft-year expectations, while others who are passed over altogether in the draft process will be signed later as free agents and go on to become stars.

Seeing the players’ bodies without hockey equipment and watching them perform the grueling physical tests gives personnel men another layer of information with which to make informed draft day decisions. The chance to sit down and get to know the players personally in an interview situation adds yet another layer. No player has ever become draft worthy simply on the basis of an amazing performance at the combine or in an interview situation. But when you are trying to distinguish between and separate and place a hierarchical value on more than 200 athletes (about 210 will be chosen at the draft), any and all information that can help you make such determinations is welcome.

McPhee would sometimes ask me what I thought of certain kids as they left the interview room. I’d give him my opinion, but I’d add that the most important piece of the puzzle is missing for me. I’ve never seen any of these guys play. Some of them are very earnest and engaging in the interview room, and some of them are capable of winning over strangers with their winning personalities within 20 minutes. But winning personalities don’t win hockey games.

Over the years, fans have grown more and more interested in the NHL draft and in the entire draft process. Endless Web sites and message boards are devoted to discussing and dissecting all the various aspects of the draft. This is a good thing for the league and for teams. You want fans to be passionate.

With that in mind, we’ll begin to turn our attention to the upcoming NHL draft in the days ahead. There are a lot of terrific sources around for draft information, and they’re compiled by dedicated and involved people who spend a lot of time watching players play hockey. We’ll tap into some of these sources to see how they think the upcoming draft will unfold, and how well Washington and the other 29 NHL teams might be able to help themselves for the years ahead.

If you were able to look at the draft lists of each of the 30 NHL clubs, you’d be amazed at the lack of consensus. While fans sit down to watch the draft on TV with The Hockey News list, the CSB list, the Red Line Report list or the International Scouting Services list, the general managers and scouting directors have their own carefully detailed and compiled lists. That’s what makes the whole process so fun and interesting from a spectator’s standpoint, If GMs simply took the next player on the list (pick any list), no one would watch, no one would show up in Columbus and no one would care. Teams would simply be awarded the best players based on the worst standing. No message boards would be necessary, because no pick would be a “reach.”

Decades are sometimes needed to determine how fruitful an individual draft is, and how well each of the 30 teams performed. But that won’t stop a lot of media outlets from assigning draft grades within mere hours and days after the draft has concluded on June 23. Congratulations to them, but their perception and vision might be better directed toward the following day’s winning lottery numbers.

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4 Comments on “Making A List”

  1. Mike, the structure of the Combine seesm to suggest that this weekend and this alone is the lone opportunity for NHL GMs and their underlings to interact with prized prospects in a meaningful way. But cannot a GM like McPhee take in a weekend’s worth of games in say Kitchener and, if impressed by a guy or two there, make requests with the junior team to have one-on-one time with the prospect then? Such an encounter, it strikes me, would facilitate a more authentic exchange than what may occur at the Combine, when many prospects, knowing they’re under extreme scrutiny, would understandably offer up rote or formulaic replies so as not to jeopardize their draft standing. Am I missing something here?

  2. dumpnchase Says:

    No, this weekend was not the lone opportunity for the Caps’ brass to get face time with some of the prospects available in the 2007 Entry Draft. The situation you outlined above, while feasible, does not afford the team’s entire scouting staff an opportunity to sit down and get to know what makes the player tick. And some of what you outlined above actually does go on. The WHL scout knows many of the WHL prospects, the OHL scout knows many of the OHL guys, etc.

    More interviews will be conducted in Columbus the week before the draft. McPhee and Mahoney and their staff arrive early in the week, as do many of the players. The GM and his crew spend most of the week conducting player interviews, and will even have second interviews with some of the players they spoke to over the past weekend in Toronto.

  3. usiel Says:

    Hey Vogs you might have answered my question in this past weeks caps report (which I missed) but was wondering if there will be anything similar to last drafts behind the scenes that I believe Comcast produced. I know many draftgeeks (like myself) found it pretty fascinating.

  4. dumpnchase Says:

    We had initial thoughts of doing a behind-the-scenes type of thing, but manpower-wise it is not going to work. Because of the new uniform unveiling back at Kettler, most of our web team is staying back and will be there. So the draft will consist mainly of good old-fashioned text while the multi-media comes from the unveiling. We’re still working on how we’re going to cover the draft, manpower-wise.

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