The 2017 NHL draft has the potential to be a franchise-defining draft for the Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson has the potential to be a first-line centre, Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich are looking like steals in the second round, and Michael DiPietro could be the goaltender of the future.
It’s the type of draft on which a person might want to hang their hat and, with Jim Benning’s status as the General Manager of the Canucks in limbo, it’s a key piece of the argument for re-signing him.
There’s a tendency towards crediting just one person in an organization for scouting and drafting prospects. Thomas Gradin, for instance, earned a reputation among Canucks fans when he pushed hard for drafting both Sedins and spotted Alex Edler in a third-tier Swedish league. From then on, any Swedish prospect was assumed to be a “Gradin pick.”
Some fans might assume that Elias Pettersson was a “Gradin pick,” as the Canucks reached slightly beyond the consensus, which placed Pettersson around 8-10 in the draft rankings, to take him at fifth overall.
Likewise, with Jim Benning’s reputation as a draft guru, some fans are quick to hand him all of the credit (or blame) for the Canucks’ drafting record. Others want to place that credit on another man’s shoulders, such as the Canucks’ Director of Amateur Scouting, Judd Brackett.
For Brackett, however, scouting and the draft is much more of a collaborative effort.
“It really is,” said Brackett. “It starts with an identification process early on, and then people come in from all over and put him against players from their region and vice versa. There’s a real process to it.”
In the case of Pettersson, it was far from a one-man show.
“Scouting is a group effort for us,” he said. “We have Inge Hammarstrom over there and Thomas [Gradin] traveled there, but Elias played in the U20 tournament in November...and we had plenty of guys that cross over to Sweden. So, there’s no one person that drafts. If there’s a player we like, we have long discussions about that player. It’s definitely a group effort when we find someone special like Pettersson.”
I spoke to Brackett after the Canucks wrapped up their scouting meetings in Toronto on the weekend. It’s here where they really start to refine their list of players for the 2018 draft. It’s also where they identify gaps in their knowledge and direct the team of scouts for these final few months.
“Most of these guys are really experienced and don’t need a lot of direction,” said Brackett. “Now that we’ve had meetings and discussions about players, let’s make sure we’re a little stronger on Player A when we compare him to Player B. A lot of the discussion might have led towards B because we didn’t have enough viewings on A.”
If Brackett feels there’s a soft spot in their scouting coverage or a player has popped up that needs more attention, he’ll schedule different scouts to see him at different times so that when they reconvene, they can feel more confident in their assessment of the player.
“Jim does it as well, as does Trevor,” he said. “They pay attention to everything that’s being talked about in the meetings and say things too, and if they feel a player needs to be seen more or discussed more, they’re certainly comfortable in directing me or directing scouts themselves.”
Brackett also talked about working with Benning in a conversation on Sportsnet 650.
“I actually had no prior working relationship with Jim,” he said.”Obviously as a scout and from Massachusetts myself, I had a great respect for Jim and heard a lot about his ability to scout, so as soon as he came here, I’ve been all ears. He’s got a tremendous wealth of knowledge and he shares it with me and we talk players. I know he enjoys getting on the road and seeing them as well.”
The biggest role Benning plays is providing overall direction, as well as, of course, providing the final decision on draft day based on their list.
“A lot of that is directed from watching the National Hockey League right now and watching how other teams are playing and having success,” said Brackett, “so it’s important for Jim to give that to us as a group and say what we’re seeing in the NHL today.”
“We’re seeing a lot of speed, we’re seeing a lot of skill, that changes our eye or our focus. You have to take notice of someone that is maybe missing an element in their game, but has NHL-caliber speed or skill that maybe in years past we would not have been as interested in.”
Part of that direction also comes from incorporating analytics into their scouting and drafting.
“Analytics for us is very helpful in identifying players,” said Brackett. “Maybe someone is driving such good numbers or trends that you overlooked and you need to go back and see. They sort of work in harmony. It’s part of the equation and you use it, but we still have to go to games, see the players, and meet them and make sure the character checks out.”
Brackett repeatedly mentions character, because it’s a key element in identifying players that won’t plateau or flat-line, but will continue to improve after being drafted. He spoke about Adam Gaudette, who he had a hand in drafting as one of the Canucks scouts for the USHL in 2015. Gaudette was one of the players whose numbers did not reflect his ability — he put up just 30 points in 50 USHL games — making him an unpopular pick for those who favour analytics.
“It’s hard to say why the numbers weren’t there,” said Brackett. “If you went to see him play, the compete level was always there, he was always in the right spot, working hard, the motor was there. We asked him the same questions you asked. Why didn’t it translate? Will it translate later?”
“It was hard to look at him in the USHL and think he wasn’t going to keep getting better, because the drive was there, the awareness was there. He needed to get stronger and he needed to gain some footspeed, but when you watched a guy who competed as hard as he did every night, it was hard to say that he’s going to flatline. It’s hard to say that kid is not going to keep getting better.”
Gaudette and Brock Boeser are again examples of scouting being a team effort. The USHL was in Brackett’s wheelhouse, but there were a lot of people involved in identifying and scouting both players. Elliotte Friedman recently identified scout Ted Hampson as pushing hard for Boeser.
“I certainly didn’t work alone on them,” said Brackett. “The US staff identified them early and everyone from crossover scouts to management had opinions on them too.”
Identifying the players who will improve has to be the hardest aspect of drafting. It’s relatively easy identifying the best player on a team or in any given league; figuring out if that same player will still be one of the best by the time they reach the NHL is the challenge.
“They’re 17, 18 years old, and it’s not just drive,” said Brackett, “it’s the willingness to accept coaching or to make changes with your body and what you fuel it with. Maybe some feel like they don’t need to do this or there’s a corner to cut, and it hurts them down the line. It’s not just the will and the drive — that’s part of it — but it’s also being receptive, being coachable, and also having enough skill to still make plays.”
Character comes up again when I bring up Michael DiPietro.
“The biggest driver for DiPietro was his character and compete,” said Brackett. “A tremendous athlete, a winner, but just driven. Very focused, but when you watch him play, there’s desperation in his game, there’s power, there’s speed, there’s quickness and for us, even at six feet, those were qualities that could separate him and make him successful.”
Brackett wouldn’t speak to any specific draft-eligible players that stood out at the 2018 World Juniors — understandable, as playing your cards close to your chest is advisable when it comes to upcoming drafts — but he did speak to his philosophy on international tournaments.
“I really think it’s important that you take the whole body of work into it by the time you get to June,” he said. “Can you help yourself at World Juniors, yes. But it is a U20 tournament, it’s generally difficult for draft-eligible players, so I try not to be overly critical of someone that maybe we’ve seen earlier and have really strong reports on, but maybe he struggled a bit or didn’t have the same impact.”
“Obviously, there are some that can compete there and do well and help themselves, but we need to stay focused on the whole year. We really can’t knock someone down or prop them up based on one tournament.”
That’s part of the reason why they felt comfortable placing Elias Pettersson as high on their list as they did. While Pettersson had an underwhelming 2017 World Junior tournament, his accomplishments in the Allsvenskan were enough for them to be convinced he belonged in the top tier of the draft.
“We really had him at the top of last year’s draft, we didn’t feel that there was any sort of cut-off or drop-off at him,” said Brackett. “We thought he belonged in the upper echelon.”
Based on how he’s performed since the draft, Brackett, Benning, and their team of scouts were absolutely right.