Why NHL teams fail in the draft
As I travel the globe looking at hockey players for North American Central Scouting's various clients and draft lists, I often get asked why NHL teams consistently make mistakes in the draft.
Here are four reasons:
1. Overvaluing performances in high-profile games
Certain tournaments such as the world junior championship, the Memorial Cup and specialty "all-star games" like the CHL Top Prospects Game contribute greatly to the mistakes that NHL teams make — especially when it comes to first- and second-round picks.
The reason is that these high-profile events tend to attract NHL generals managers and presidents who, by watching just a small sample of a player's performance, can fall in or out of love with a prospect.
Due to the fact that GMs are, by nature, a very intimidating lot, they can convince their regional scouts into agreeing on an evaluation of a player, even if the entire year's scouting reports run contrary to what the GM says.
For example, I know of one team that had its GM go to the Prospects Game and absolutely fall in love with a player that the whole staff had agreed wasn't worthy of being a first-round pick. His off-ice character was sketchy, he was a bad teammate, and everybody knew he was a very risky pick. The scouting staff was in its first season with the team, and the more the GM raved about the prospect, the quieter they grew because they didn't want to disagree with their boss.
Even the head scout started to hedge his bets. Eventually, he started to try and find positive things to say about the prospect and, on draft day, the team found the player still available at their pick in the 20s. They practically ran to the podium to scoop him up. The prospect never panned out, and the team wasted a valuable first-round pick.
The lesson: There's a reason why scouts watch prospects for 18-plus months, so don't get convinced by one or two performances.
2. The 'big fish, small pond' effect
Another important situation for teams to avoid is falling in love with a prospect who is playing against inferior competition. This can be true for kids playing high school or Tier II junior because a prospect that is just OK can look like Wayne Gretzky against weak opponents.
Everything from his skating to his physical play can look better against soft competition, and thus a prospect can have his ratings boosted to erroneous levels by comparing him to his opponents.
At NACS, we are very cognisant of this happening and, as a result, we make sure we get in plenty of viewings against various opponents before we put players who play at lower levels high on our list. Furthermore, the amount of improvement you can expect from a player who plays against terrible opposition is very limited because he doesn't need to work as hard to succeed. So, generally, he won't in the future.
The lesson: Make sure to see the big fish many times, especially if he gets a chance to play against elite opposition, to get a true evaluation.
3. The shortcut of ignoring character
One of the biggest improvements in player evaluation and drafting has come with teams spending much more time and effort evaluating the player as a person and not just as an on-ice product.
Through the use of background checks, interviews and psychological evaluations, we have gotten to know players on a much more intimate level than in years past. Scouts who fail to put in this hard work and resort to just evaluating a player based on his on-ice performance are setting themselves up for failure.
It's not a glamorous part of the job, but setting up meetings with guidance councilors, billets and teachers can provide vital information on the character of a kid and whether he has the makeup to become a star or a bust.
I have numerous colleagues who complain that "Everybody only says good things, so why bother?" But the truth is that if you ask the right questions and put in the time, you can really start to get a good feel about whether this 18-year-old player has the capabilities to handle stardom and money.
The lesson: There is way more to the job then just watching the kid play.
4. Overlooking prospects at the top of their age group
One of the biggest reasons that teams miss out on drafting a good player is because they fail to recognize the players who have traditionally been one of the best in their peer group. So much goes into why a player is highly touted or not and situations like ice time and special teams play a huge part.
If a prospect plays on a veteran-laden team and thus doesn't get much ice time or never sees the power play, he can drop in a team's rankings despite still being one of the best in his peer group.
Admittedly, it's a delicate balancing act to determine which players have stopped progressing versus those who aren't given the chance, but usually those kids who were at the head of their age group are still there.
A recent example was a kid who was always one of the five best forwards in his age group in North America, but because he went to a team vying for the Memorial Cup in his first two years, he only played about 10 minutes a night and the scouts gave up on him. He went undrafted, but the following season his junior team started to rebuild around this fine young man, and every team couldn't believe that he had slipped through the NHL draft. He was selected in the second round the next time.
The lesson: Elite players in their age group should not be overlooked because of situational issues.
Mark Seidel is the chief scout for North American Central Scouting. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org