The 2018 NHL Draft is now less than a month away, which means teams will be coming together over the next few weeks with their scouts to finalize their draft lists. It’s the culmination of months of hard work for an event that takes just two days.
The Canucks released a video of one of those scouting meetings on Wednesday, giving a brief behind-the-scenes look at how they put together a draft list.
“Scouting is a group effort for us,” said director of amateur scouting Judd Bracket when I spoke to him in January. “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.”
You can see the group effort in the meeting. Brackett directs the discussion but the 16 scouts in attendance, along with Jim Benning, John Weisbrod, and Trevor Linden, all chip in at different times.
These types of videos are always carefully edited both to avoid revealing a strategy or preference for a particular player, but also to prevent anyone from looking bad. Sometimes something will sneak through — a video of Laurence Gilman in 2013 accidentally revealed what appeared to be the Canucks’ 2010 draft board — but the whiteboards and computer screens in this video are carefully blurred to avoid giving anything away.
It’s also hard to tell at times what is genuine and what is said knowing that there are cameras in the room.
The video starts with a clear stated purpose: “Build through the draft.”
“Championship teams usually have 10, 11, 12 home-grown players,” says Benning. “All good teams build through the draft.”
There’s an obvious exception in the Stanley Cup Final right now, unless you include the expansion draft in with the entry draft, but the Vegas Golden Knights are a special case. The Washington Capitals certainly fit the bill: Of the 20 players who have played a significant part of the playoffs for them, 11 are home-grown players that they drafted. Four others that they drafted have appeared in one or two playoff games.
The Canucks, on the other hand, had just eight home-grown, Canucks-drafted players in their lineup for at least 10 games last season.
“I’m gonna try to get more picks if I can,” says Benning. “Make sure that you get that order right, because if we do get more picks going into the draft, it’s going to be important, the work you do in the room right now.”
Acquiring picks heading into the draft can be difficult, as it’s often the time when teams value their picks the highest. Unlike at the trade deadline, when teams are focussed on the here-and-now, trying to make the playoffs, heading into the draft teams are having the same type of meetings seen in the video. That means every team is well aware of what trading away a draft pick means — it means they don’t get one of the players they’ve been obsessively discussing and ranking.
Still, it can be done; it just often means that the price is high, though it depends on the pick. The Canucks traded down at the 2017 draft to get an extra pick in the sixth round, one of which was used to acquire the recently-signed Petrus Palmu. Occasionally a blockbuster deal can be made as well, such as when Cory Schneider got the Canucks the ninth overall pick used on Bo Horvat.
Brackett then takes over, running through the process they will use to make their list. They start with the centres, which is written on the whiteboard as “CENTER/CENTRE” to perhaps accommodate the American scouts in the room.
The process seems fairly straightforward: Brackett puts three or four centres on the board, perhaps players that they have in a similar tier, and they then rank them according to a series of attributes: “Player type, future potential, hockey sense, character/compete, skating, skill.”
There may be other attributes that they use that are edited out of the video. Presumably they do this again and again, putting a new group of three or four players up each time, until a full list is made.
“We’ve really made it a point of speaking the same language and using the same terms,” says Brackett, “really identifying characteristics or criteria that are gonna be the building blocks of the players we want.”
Some of the most fascinating elements of the video are the interactions between the people in the room. An early discussion of one player’s skating teases out some interesting insight into how those involved view how players can develop.
“He’s a strong, powerful skater,” says Ron Delorme, pantomiming with his arms.
“But when we talk about the game and the direction it’s going and the pace,” responds Brackett, “I don’t see him having separation speed or anything that’s going to push him past average.”
“Bo Horvat didn’t have separation speed when he was that age,” replies Delorme.
That is something frequently brought up by fans when a scouting report criticizes a prospect’s skating. Horvat, however, is an exception rather than the rule. Not all players can develop their skating the way Horvat has and Ryan Johnson suggests a reason why.
“With Horvat, his skating was probably 75 or 70% mental,” says Johnson, “Just figuring out you can’t plant anymore, you can’t glide through the neutral zone. Once he got mentally — like, Gaudette’s gonna be the same type, in the sense of once he mentally figures out he’s got to hit holes, when he gets the puck in the neutral zone he can’t plant and look for passes.”
The video takes some time to speak to a few individual scouts about what they look for. Wyatt Smith emphasizes “hockey sense, work ethic, compete,” while Derek Richard talks about “body language.”
“I’m a big believer in body language,” he says. “I’m watching his interactions with teammates, coaches, on the bench, how he interacts against opponents.”
In some ways, that kind of language and the emphasis on “character” and “compete” can be concerning, bringing up images of the scouting meeting in the movie Moneyball, where they talk about liking guys that “got a little hair on their ass” and discounting a player because of an “ugly girlfriend.” But Brackett talked about why character was so important in January: because you’re not just looking at who the best player is now, but who will become the best player years down the road.
“They’re 17, 18 years old, and it’s not just drive,” he said. “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.”
In that sense, character and even body language can matter, though you want to be careful how you weight those attributes in comparison to on-ice speed and skill. A player that takes coaching well and works hard to improve on their flaws will become a better player in the future.
The one time the video shows what’s on the whiteboard is when Brackett is writing down numbers, ranking the player in each attribute. It’s clear in that moment that “character/compete” is just one attribute, rather than two separate ones. The players on the board get all 2s and 3s across the board, though it’s unclear if a lower or higher number is better and what kind of scale they’re working on.
“What are the deficiencies that make him a three?” asks Weisbrod.
“It’s more power, speed-based game, it’s not a wide-vision, distribute the puck, get my wingers involved,” replies Brackett. “It’s not that he struggles there, but it’s not…”
“This guy is a clear playmaker,” he adds, pointing to another player on the board. “This guy is making plays offensively. I think his offensive bent is higher than his.”
“You want to be strong-minded, but not pigheaded,” says Weisbrod after. “That’s why we’re all in here together.”
There’s another intriguing interaction towards the end of the video, as they discuss a centre that they originally didn’t like.
“First round pick, you know, I was kind of sour,” says Dan Palango about the player, “ but then I ground out what these guys told me, then we watch him with a different eye and the fact that his character’s so high, he won me over.”
“By the end of the week, probably he’s going to be our biggest jumper,” says Brackett. “This guy was not on our 45, was on the player type, and I think even in the two-way player type he was down quite a bit, and he’s pushing into the top-six among centres right now.”
It’s a telling moment, confirmed a moment later by Weisbrod. The Canucks will come out with a list of 45 players for the draft, supplemented by positional lists. That seems like a small list — 217 players will get selected at the draft — but this is evidently not unusual across the NHL.
A portion of these scouting meetings across the NHL is dedicated to rejecting players rather than selecting them. If they’ve determined that one flaw (or a group of flaws) will prevent a prospect from making the NHL or being an impact player, it’s understandable why they would just leave him off their list entirely. Perhaps that prospect would be someone you would consider in the fourth round, but if he’s a likely second-round pick, why bother putting him on your list?
Still, 45 players is a short list and it makes you wonder where late-round picks like Palmu and Matt Brassard were on that list last year. Benning identified Palmu as a player that analytics alerted them to and he’s the type of swing-for-the-fences pick that I would like to see more of in later rounds.
So, who is the centre that went from outside their list of 45 players (and low on their list of two-way players) to near the top of their list of centres? There’s simply not enough information in the video to even make an educated guess, but if the Canucks grab a centre with a third or fourth-round pick, the speculation will surely begin that he was the one.