Friday, June 25, 2010

NHL Draft Features on the Dallas Stars Website: It's a huge day for the Scouting Staff

This is one weekend of the year NHL Scouting Staff's work comes to light as this year's top prospects goes from hopeful to being in the system and the Scouting Staff takes you inside the work it goes to select which players the Stars will look at and will eventually get to play for the National Hockey League.

By John Tranchina of the Dallas Stars Website:

They don't get much recognition during the hockey season and much of the work comes from behind the scenes, but in the long run, they are crucial to any NHL's Club Success. They are amateur scouts, who spend most of the year watching and evaluating hundreds of players in dozens of leagues around the world in preparation for the one event they get to participate in - the NHL Entry Draft.

With this year's draft beginning with the first round on Friday Night (6PM on Versus) followed by rounds 2-7 on Saturday, the Dallas Stars, like every team, get the opportunity to re-stock their cupboard of prospects.

And in the era of the Salary Cap, not to mention the Stars' own even-more-stringent internal budget, the most direct and least costly way to add new elite level talent to your org. is to select and develop - your own talent through the NHL Talent.

For the Stars, making sure they make prudent decisions is even more important then usual because they own just four picks - an NHL low- after, including some in prior trades. Overall, the odds of players selected beyond the first round, and especially after the second, developing into full time NHL Players are pretty low. The usual role is that if you can come out of any given draft year with two guys who can have some sort of impact for your team down the road, it should be considered be a success - and that's assuming with seven selections. With only four, it makes it even tougher.

"It's a long process - you go through this whole thing we do all year trying to get two players." said Dallas director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt, who is usually the one that makes the announcement at the podium. "Actually, we'd like to get two, three or four, and sometimes you do. You try to get as many as you can, but it's a slow process. You have to have a lot of patience, that's for sure."

Part of the uncertainty is that the scouts are scrutinizing the play of 17-and-18 year olds and then trying to predict how they'll fill out physically and where their game evolve to four or five years down the road. Cleary, it's not a very exact science.

"We're trying to project what they're going to be like at 25 years old, yet they're just 17 years old players at the time." Longtime Stars scout Bob Gardner said. "There's some guesswork and projection. We just hope we're right a lot more then were wrong."

"It's a gut feeling on a player as far as where he can get to", Bernhardt added.

Each full time scout sees well over 100 games a season, primarily focusing on one specific geographic area, the Canadian province of Ontario or the state of Minnesota for instance. Then about midway through the year, the entire scouting staff meets and discusses the player they like, prioritizing guys they'd like to see more of and then setting up a cross-over schedule where scouts will travel to another one's domain to get multiple evaluations the higher-rated players. Ulitmately, they like to have four or five different scouts view the priority players so there is a good cross selection of opinions.

"We break our group up into where we have three or four scouts go and follow up on all those players we've ID. as priority players," noted Stars director of Scouting and Player Development Les Jackson, the man who oversees all scouting activities. "From that point, the area guys still stay in their area and they keep watching and evaluating as the season goes on."

"After Christmas, when you've evaluated and ID. everybody," said Dallas Scout Dennis Holland," you make sure you've made the right evaluation and that the kids are better in March then there were in January and better then they were in October. It's a process and that's why you need to go in and see them more then once. If there's somebody you like, you make sure you go in there and do your homework, see them play on the road as well as home. Talk to their coaches, see what kind of person he is off and on the ice and see if he's dedicated to working out and better himself."

When a scout looks at a player, he evaluates him in several different areas. First, he rates the player's individual skills - such as his skating or shooting ability, hockey sense (ability to read a developing play and react accordingly), physical prowess, and perhaps most importantly, character. Then he tries to determine how much the player can progress in the future, which, of course, is the great unknown in scouting.

"You take all the attributes, and you say, "This player has improvement potential," because that's really what you're judging," said Jackson. "Over the next four years, if this guy can improve in these areas, he has a chance to be a player. Your final answer, hopefully, is that he has the character and he's the type of person who wants to work. One of the things you're really watching is the players thinking process, how he reads the game, how he reacts to situations. That's important, because that's one thing you'd have a tough time training. You not only win by playing a team game, and if you don't get guys that fit your style, then chances are, you're not going to succeed."

Comparing players from vastly different levels of competition can be challenging, but it helps keeps the scouts focused on the players ind. attributes, not necessarily how many goals he can score.

"We're evaluating guys who may might be playing High School in Minnesota compared to somebody who might be playing in Russia (KHL)," Holland said. "At times, you've got to scratch your head and step back. You're evaluating in the future, your projecting in five years, 'How good will that player be?' You taking in skating, size, hockey sense, commitment and intensity - you've got to take all those things into considering and making your decision. It's funny how it all falls together after watching 175 hockey games in a season.

Of course, most players selected in the draft need several years of refinement before they are ready for the NHL. And depending on where they are coming from, there's already a clock ticking.

Those chosen from the top Canadian Junior Leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL), which typically account for over half of all players taken in the draft, have two years to sign a contract before the team's claim to that player's rights' expire. NCAA Players belong to a team until their college eligibility runs out, and that includes guys taken in lover level junior leagues like the USHL, NAHL or any of the Canadian Jr. A Leagues that go on to play College Hockey.

European players used to remain a team's assets indefinitely, but since the last CBA agreement was signed in 2005, they have two years to sign with the club that choose them - and that's resulted in significantly fewer Euros getting picked.

"Once you draft them, you really have to be patient and put them in situations where they can develop and learn," Jackson said. "They're kids and you've got to let them mature."

The season after a draft, the Stars keep tabs on players choose by other org.

"Although that's not our primary job, we will try and note the progress of players, because they might come up in a trade or something," Gernander said. "Some teams may not sign a player and if we like him, we might be interested."

Blooming prospect Aaron Gagnon, who lead the AHL Texas Stars in scoring this past season and played key roles in the march to the Calder Cup Finals, is a prime example of that scenario. He was initially selected by Phoenix in the 8th round (240th overall) in 2004, but they opted not to sign him and their rights to him expired, leaving him a free agent available with Dallas in February.

As time goes on and some players do and don't work out as NHL'ers, the scouting staff takes some time reflect back on where they were wrong and where they were right about certain guys.

"We've made some selections that haven't worked out, so I think we've had had every learning lesson there is," Jackson said. "We've drafted guys high who haven't worked out, we've drafted guys low who haven't worked out, we've drafted guys real high who have been real good and we've drafted guys low who worked out good, so we've got a wide range of good lessons to learn from.

The next chapter will be written for the scouting staff beginning Friday in Los Angeles, when the Stars picked 11th overall. They will be active early on Saturday. Heading back to the podium in the second round (41st), third (71st) and fifth round (131st). Of course, that is all assuming the Stars don't make trades, either for players or additional picks.

Either way, the proceedings this weekend will go a long long way, towards determine the org. success.

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