On the Road series (Part 3): Player Evaluation- the Body of Work

Welcome back for another installment of the “On the Road” series, where we break down hockey scouting in more detail for those who might not be aware of the things that go into the process of player evaluations at the amateur and professional level. If you haven’t already, you can read parts 1 and 2 of the series or jump right into this one.

After touching on the kinds of things that go into basic player evaluation, and we do mean basic- the second part of the blog series was 4,000 words and by no means even came close to hitting everything- it is important to next discuss an aspect of scouting that some would argue is just about as important as a player’s ability to perform- the body of work.

What do we mean by this? Well, body of work is a catch-all for the individual’s character, work ethic, personality, injury history and other behind the scenes factors that teams can research and investigate to develop a more comprehensive read on the individual they are considering drafting. Some fans sit in a bubble and honestly think that drafting and developing players at any level is only about talent and skill. While they’re certainly entitled to their views, real life begs to differ.

This next point has become somewhat of a mantra, but life isn’t some EA Sports NHL 17 video game, where you just go out and find the highest-rated players on the game console, plug them into your lineup and reap the benefits of the artificial gaming environment. This is why the “eye test vs. analytics” argument is so toxic to intelligent discourse when it comes to hockey and the draft, because neither position factors the importance of scouts- that is- people, not spreadsheets- going out and doing the additional legwork that can help any team make a much more informed decision about the players on their list and the real potential value they represent.

It also gets to one of the real pet peeves out there, which is when people talk about the NHL draft being a “crapshoot”- as addressed in the second part of the series, identifying and drafting 17-18-year-olds to be future NHL impact players is difficult, but it is not a complete exercise of chance the way throwing dice or spinning a roulette wheel is. NHL teams who spend an entire season and beyond putting in time and resources to identify and draft players who could be a part of a winning solution down the road are not just rolling dice or throwing things against the wall to see if something sticks. They are engaging in a deliberate process, albeit one that no one can ever get completely right, no matter how adept or organized they are. Drafting is both art and science. How much of one versus the other will always be a major source of debate, but to infer that the NHL draft is just a game of chance whereby teams don’t control the decisions they make on players and are at the mercy of nature (the player’s physical development) is just something we’ll never get on board with. It’s become an accepted cliché to call the draft a crapshoot, but it’s such a lazy position to take. The reality is- teams who employ smart and diligent people who will go well beyond just going to games and watching a player’s performance, but who will expend the time and energy to talk to coaches, families, friends and other players to get a more comprehensive body of work on a player stand a better chance of hitting on more of their draft picks year after year than missing on them.

Why is this important? Well, obviously- skill matters a great deal to any NHL team, because without it- your team can’t compete and win in the greatest league on earth. However, beyond skill, teams are placing more and more of a premium on character, because with the millions of dollars invested in NHL rosters each season, those clubs want to get more out of their players than the 82-game regular season, playoffs (for those 16 teams that get in) and all the other before and in-between things. Teams desire players who will represent their brand with dignity and respect, placing a premium on fan interaction and connecting with their respective communities. If you’re going to be paying players millions to ply their craft on the ice, the predominant thinking is that you need to be able to leverage their status off the ice as well. This is why a player who is an absolute stud on the ice, can be even more coveted and desired if he is decent and selfless off the ice.

In the 21st century, NHL teams (and really, every high level team at the professional and amateur levels) expect much more from their players than merely going out and performing on the ice. And that’s why the application of time and energy to body of work is not just about character, leadership, drive, etc. A team that does proper due diligence on a player can help identify and determine some red flags that are injury-related and/or could represent too much risk for that club to take on based on where they are drafting.

All of this adds up to underscore the importance of teams investing the resources into scouting with people who are willing to not merely go to games and watch players, but who will develop extensive contacts with teams, agents, players and other key information brokers to make sure they stay plugged in and well-informed of key developments and changes as they happen. NHL teams are going to invest potential millions of dollars in any given draft pick if they hit and go on to success, so why wouldn’t they want to do as much research as possible on each player they are even thinking about taking?

This post will attempt to begin the conversation to lay out why the body of work has become an essential part of the scouting and player development process. Teams who were ahead of the curve in figuring this out have enjoyed sustained success in the league standings over time. Other clubs took longer to realize the importance of peeling back the onion on each and every potential pick, but all teams have adapted and are putting more and more demands on their scouts to go above and beyond simply coming to meetings and answering the basic question all scouts are charged with: can the kid play?

In 2017, technology in the form of proprietary software and systems such as RinkNet allow teams at all levels to manage inputs and information in real time. Gone are the old paper filing systems that were sent via mail and handed off to chief scouts and other team personnel when those individuals would come through key areas to see games featuring identified players on their watch lists. Now, with a few simple clicks, an area scout can be giving direct information and feedback to GMs, AGMs and chief scouts within minutes, so there really is no excuse for teams to not be as proactive as possible when working the angles of players they have interest in.

By the same token, the focus has to continue to be in the on-ice evaluation process, because ultimately, the best leader or highest character of a kid has no shot at reaching the NHL and making an impact if he doesn’t have the requisite skills. Therefore, the entire journey in any given season becomes a balancing act, as scouts are having to adapt skill sets similar to those of private investigators, guidance counselors and even salesmen to ferret out some of the key information that could lead the team to finding a major draft value later on, or prevent the club from making a catastrophic mistake with a high pick.

Here’s a recent example of what we’re talking about. Player X was having a superb season and rising on some teams’ boards as the year went into the final stretch prior to that junior league’s playoffs. Unfortunately, as the schedule got inside the club’s final 10 regular season games, player X took a cheap shot and suffered a dreaded UBI- upper body injury- aka concussion. Player x subsequently didn’t play another game that year.

Enter a scout from an NHL team that had been closely tracking player X all season. When the junior team’s coaches and medical personnel showed hesitation to share detailed information about the severity of the player’s concussion and his timetable for recovery/how post-concussion symptoms might affect him going forward, the scout went to player X’s school and was able to file a request for attendance records. After verifying that player X did not miss a single day of school since the injury occurred, the scout was able to go back to his team and shed much more light and context on the severity of the concussion. As Bruins fans may recall when Patrice Bergeron lost nearly an entire season and a half after the Randy Jones hit from behind early in the 2007-08 season, or more recently, the sad beginning of the sudden end to Marc Savard’s career because of the Matt Cooke blindside hit in 2010, players with severe concussions might not be able to move freely and have to spend extended periods of inactivity in completely dark rooms depending on their symptoms. The fact that player X had been able to attend school without issue provided evidence that drafting him early would not represent undue risk.

Since then, player X has gone on to have a couple of solid seasons free of lingering concussion issues and is considered a top prospect in his respective NHL organization. And a good part of it thanks to a dedicated scout who went the extra mile and was innovative in his approach to develop enough information that not only helped the chief scout and GM to make an informed decision, but also reinforced the payoff for the scout as a result of his willingness to go to bat for a player he believed in.

Sometimes, you can be as passionate about a player as you want to be, but it’s far more meaningful to the decision makers in an organization when a scout comes to the table armed with additional facts and information that they went out of their way to gather without being directed to do so. As the great Canadian rock band Rush once sang: “Show, don’t tell.”

Scouts have many stories of going to games and identifying skilled players who certainly appear to possess the talent and skill level to play at the highest levels. Unfortunately, scouting involves much more than filing game reports and checking boxes about ability and upside. How is the kid’s character? Is he a good teammate? Is he the type of person you want representing your organization? These are questions that may or may not be readily apparent simply by watching games, so they require a willingness to engage with coaches and other information brokers to ferret out various threads that will either confirm interest or perhaps lead to focus in a different direction.

One of the worst things for a scout is to recommend a player, and then later find out from the organization’s coaches that said player has character or motivation issues. Coaches have to work with the players the front office and scouting departments bring in for them, and they aren’t shy about sharing that feedback if players with red flags that should have been identified show up and proceed to fall short of expectations.

Multiple factors are in play, from a player’s attitude and drive to perhaps things outside of that player, such as family issues and concerns with the parents for example, or perhaps things involving his current team or system that might hamper him from peak performance in his draft year- something that a new team or change of scenery might improve the player’s performance. How many times have you seen a player have one year of mediocre production only to go to a new club and system and take his points and consistency to a new level? Sometimes, it can be something as relatively simple as superior coaching and/or dressing room environment to bring out the best in a player.

Here’s a real world example of what we’re talking about. Your TSP founder was recently at a fundraising event for a USHL team and was asking one particular player about one of his teammates, who is eligible for the 2017 NHL draft. To the player’s credit, he was pretty candid about his mate’s lack of worth ethic and laziness when it comes to conditioning. Interestingly enough, the player in question’s habits don’t always manifest themselves on the ice- meaning- he’s been reasonably productive and successful. But feedback like this begs the obvious question: If he worked harder, how much *better* could he be? Now, if not for having that simple conversation and asking a relatively minor question, the scout would not have this particular perspective. The truth is- some players can mask their questionable habits or conditioning better than others so as not to attract scrutiny during a game, especially if a particular scout or observer isn’t looking at them with a laser-focus. A team, therefore, would not discover this potential flaw in said player until after they had drafted him and he showed up to a development camp or training camp where it is near impossible to hide those negatives from players and coaches. In that case, the coaches would then look at the scout who recommended the kid and want to know how he didn’t pick up on the questionable work habits.

Clear message sent: If you want to remain employed by an NHL team for long, then you’d better be thorough.

This is just one example, but there are many more aspects and factors that go into developing a body of work on a player. For example, we know of one scout who recently sent a text to a player and that player responded immediately. Positive check mark in the scout’s mind- there’s a kid who is serious and engaged in the process. It’s a small thing for sure, but those small things add up.

Ultimately, we recognize that there is always going to be a segment of folks who just don’t see the value in paying a premium for character and leadership and will always default to talent. Our position and that of most NHL teams is- strive to find players who possess both. No matter how talented a player is, if he’s selfish or lacks drive, then the team writing his checks is probably not getting the best possible ROI with him. You can have one or two of those players on a roster and perhaps be a championship-caliber team, but too many more than that, and the front office and coaching types are taking a risk with their viability.

Body of work can spare teams from making mistakes and investing in the right kinds of people who will enhance the brand. It’s a results-oriented business, so you have to find the guys who can play, but focusing only on talent and advanced statistics to emphatically decide who is or isn’t desirable is like solving only ¾ of an equation- at some point, if your coach comes to you with his hands in the air and says he can’t get through to a certain player, there’s a good chance that whatever personality or character flaws are contributing to the situation could have been identified during the draft process. Or, maybe they were and the team accepted risk anyway… In either situation, it’s far better for the scout for his bosses to have known about an issue beforehand than finding out about it after the kid is signed and drawing a paycheck.

The best scouts out there separate themselves from the pack because they invest the time and energy in getting to know the players in their areas so they can best advocate for them, or steer their organizational decision-makers away from guys who might have played well in a couple of viewings, but have some underlying issues not readily identified in those limited settings.

Ultimately, it’s just one more piece of a puzzle that is coming more and more into focus as the calendar flips over to March.

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