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How is scouting changing?

As we approach the end of May, talk and speculation about the NHL Entry Draft will ramp up. Who is taking who? Who is on the move?

Over the last few years, that conversation has grown to include a focus on how scouting is changing. The days of one scout in one region are long gone. Now there are cross-regional scouts, data mining and more information shared in organizations.

Teams that are looking for new ways to improve their performance on the draft floors are hoping that with minor improvements over time, they can set themselves up for prolonged success. That gives them more assets to move, more depth and more chances at success.

That means that there are tonnes of opportunities to adapt how you look at things. Brad Pitt’s character in Moneyball summed this up the best:

So, I was curious about what things might teams be doing to streamline or improve their scouting.

Terminology

That short clip is something I’ve heard quite a few times recently — how the wording of player assessments have changed. As Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas says, we are all guilty of throwing out stock phrases to describe players. Phrases like “He has speed” and “He has a quick release” are terms used to describe offensive players, when really you need to find subtle differences in each player, and speak to their strengths or weaknesses with more description.

Rather than “He has quick release”, we now expect to explain more simple nuances of his shot, such as, the puck rolls off the end of his stick when he shoots, or that he can hide the puck under his blade before he snaps the shot. Simple explanations that provide more in-depth analysis and also the distinction in a players skill.

By creating these distinctions, it can help teams find players that might otherwise get overlooked.

Data

We’ve also seen over the last few years that the use of data or advanced stats slowly creeps into everything hockey, and that includes scouting. Whether it’s NHLe, PCS or pGPS (the list could go on), they are used to find ways to extract talent from the data. The key to the data though is applying it correctly. You can pull data for eternity, but applying that data to something that is subjective like scouting is where things can get lost.

The Nation Network obviously uses data to help shape their arguments, but we understand that we aren’t meeting these kids in interviews. We aren’t always watching these prospects in person, but it is important to note that a lot of people who are ‘advanced stats’ guys do watch a lot of hockey.

The obvious way to success is using both data and old school eyes to work together and make the best decisions possible. Using the information taken from interviews, live viewings, video and notes, and then combining that with data available – like shots, percentages and success rates – is the key to success.

Eliminating Biases

We are all guilty of inherent biases.

Whether it’s recency bias, confirmation bias, belief bias, hot hand fallacy, etc. — the list is long.

Some are more common in hockey, and that can cloud your judgement and convince you to make poor decisions based on that. When you combine data, old school scouting, terminology and a conscious effort to push the boundaries, you can work toward eliminating those biases.

All too commonly we hear about a particular junior team that has a track record of producing players. That is likely very true but just because player X did well from that program a few years ago does not mean the player Y will see the same amount of success. You need to find out why the first player was successful and then find the differences in player two. Their environment can aid in their success, but there likely won’t be a direct correlation.

This isn’t to say that biases haven’t existed before, but franchises are more aware of them and are working towards making the best objective decisions possible.

One of the other major biases is towards size or ‘looking like a hockey player’. If you can use data and interviews (again, combine the quantitative and qualitative analysis) to find a player who might get overlooked. You can maximize the value of your selections.

Basement bloggers

This argument will already produce an eye-roll, but there is a track record of this. Teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins have hired bloggers or analysts who primarily started online.

These people provided angles or analysis that created discussion or new ideas that teams found interesting enough to bring in house. Sometimes it isn’t simply that one idea, it’s about bringing in a mind that looks at things differently and helps the organization towards the ultimate goal.

Furthermore, countless online resources are scouting services who are in the rinks and press boxes watching these games alongside the paid scouts. Just takes some time to get to know each other and then those ‘online scouts’ can find themselves with a chance at a junior role in an organization.

All of this is to say that the avenue to get into the business has changed. Just like it has with the media. No longer is it just ‘I played the game, so I can scout’. There are smart people out there finding their way, and that has had changes in NHL organizations.


Baseball went through this and is constantly going through all these same changes. Hockey is just in its infancy for these changes.

Given that, there is a lot of criticism when teams aren’t already seeing the success. Or when they do, it’s brushed off as the level of analysis isn’t public. But teams that make a conscious effort to improve every day in every aspect of their organization are in the best place to improve every year.

With a salary cap that limits the amount that can be spent on players for any given season, teams are looking for ways to improve other aspects. Some are as simple as changing the way you break down a player or eliminating pre-conceived notions. Others are about acquiring as many minds as possible to aid in those changes.

The NHL is a battle of efficiencies. Finding any slight edge that can push the needle just slightly towards your side should be a priority every day. You obviously need a little luck, but if you can maximize what you are doing on the draft floor, that needle can be pushed to your side and stay that way.

That there is so much emphasis now on the draft and entry level contracts and it’s fascinating to watch how teams handle it. Adapt or die.

    • Fred-65

      I guess the question is, how do you find people that fit that description. Unless I’ve missed some thing but teams that have a guy with “an eye” are not going let these guys go. Vcr for the most part have scouts that have been in the organization for decades, not with outstanding success according to most. So what do you do, fire them all, fire them in rotation and replace them with who ?? I liked Marshall Johnson in Ottawa, but I doubt you could move him from Ottawa (he’s now retired ) I liked JD in St Louis when he was there. more teams are lucky rather than deserving .. Edmonton hasn’t scouted well they’re just lucky and lousy for years. Ken Holland admitted Detroit was lucky with it’s great late round picks. TO were more lousy and lucky than technical in their scouting. Pitts got Crosby in shut out season lottery. So as much as you want to round off the corners you need to be lucky.

      I haven’t followed scouting changes in Vcr, how many have been since JB took over

      • I hear you. “How do you find people that fit that description.” It’s Jim Benning’s job to find personal and fill those roles. That is part of his job description. If it were up to me, I would look at hiring retired players, coaches, and other hockey personal that are established in a given area. Say someone in Stockholm that knows the lay of the land and speaks the local language. Another in Zurich, Moscow, Frankfurt, …Someone that enjoys hanging around hockey rinks, knows the game, and has time to do this.

      • Rodeobill

        that may be so, you do need luck, but the whole point of scouting is to make better informed picks rather than leaving it to luck. Could you imagine if your scouting team told you just to pick the luckiest one?

  • Freud

    As teams adapt, my sense is Vancouver management is lagging in this department.

    Evaluating Sutter as they did, despite overwhelming data to the contrary. Bringing in Gudbransen, Sbisa while successful teams are moving away from defensive defensemen. Not using cap space to their advantage. No creativity in taking on bad contracts for assets. No value free agent signings. Decision bias based on previous connections to the draft, Boston, Medicine Hat, western Canada. No exploration of a voice in management not from the old boys network, etc…

    The successful teams look to describe scouting in better detail, Benning wants European skill and North American heart.

    As teams work towards being more thorough

    • Betty

      I’d say the exact opposite. Remember how sad we are that 3rd round pick Tryamkin is leaving? Or how enamoured we are with our late first rounder Boeser? Or how our 2nd round draft pick is now one of the best goalie prospects? Or how we turned a prospect who was later waived (so we could have had him back if we’d wanted) into a 20 goal pace scorer? Or how we turned a 2nd round draft pick into another 20 goal pace scorer who looks like he has more room to develop? Those all seem like pretty good scouting accomplishments. If we’d scouted this well for the last few years, we’d have a darned good team.

      We used cap space to create a reasonably competitive team that won more playoff games than we had in the three previous seasons combined?

      Yes, we took Sbisa, not our greatest but we’re all pretty sure he’s getting taken in the expansion draft, so he’s got to be something. Not to mention we were handicapped as we had to move Kesler to one of 2 teams. All things considered, JB did pretty darn well with that trade.

      You may not like Sutter, but coaches seem to love him. He was trusted to anchor any rookies, win all our faceoffs and play against tough competition. While I disagree with his deployment, he’s added value to the team and is signed to leave as he declines.

      Gudbranson played most of his games for us with a wrist injury making it hard for him to box out defenders, which is basically 90% of what makes him useful. There’s a reason Jack Adams nominated coach Gallant played him more than any other defender (including Ekblad and Campbell) when the Panthers were in the playoffs. Let’s see what he does for us while healthy.

    • Neil B

      le sigh.

      Okay, one more time: unless you are in the top 5 teams competing for the Cup, or project yourself to be within 3 years, cap space is largely irrelevant. TERM is invaluable. If we’re going to be in the bottom third of the league for two more years, I don’t care if we’re paying Sbisa $6.5 mill, as long as he’s off the books when we become competitive.

      To that concept, we’ve had only a couple bad signings (Eriksson and Sutter); and Sutter’s is not grossly out of scope, as he’ll still be a contributing (overpaid, but contributing) 3C in his final season. Eriksson’s was a calculated risk, and really not based on his performance, but rather the idea that the Sedins would continue to defy the aging process for another couple seasons. Still, that term could hamper us, especially as the contract is buyout-proof to the greater extent.

  • Carl Jung

    “I really don’t think (Tyler Bozak) is worth resigning even if he does become a permanent fixture on the third line.”

    https://theleafsnation.com/2013/5/17/why-tyler-bozak-should-have-played-his-last-game-as-a-leaf/

    Would Cam Charron actually have the courage to say this to Mike Babcock’s face?

    Would anyone within the NHL really care about Charron’s opinion over Babcock’s?

    NHL teams have incentives to hire online bloggers whether these bloggers are good or not.

    Hiring online bloggers helps to sway the opinion of the casual fan.

    The majority of fans are very willing to believe they have the ability to be NHL executives.

    Online bloggers are a bridge for this kind of voyeurism.

    Especially on a platform like The Nation Network that pretends it is “independent”.

    “Independent” being a euphemism for “I want to be mainstream, but I have to start somewhere”.

    Until the salaries of online bloggers that made their way to the show are disclosed, there is zero reason for anyone to take these pleas seriously.

  • wojohowitz

    Nowhere do I read the word `competitive` as in nature or spirit. Some players are wired – like Gallagher when he played for the Giants or the way Lockwood throws himself at his opponents. Higher profile examples are Burrows and Kesler. Two examples of players who appear to lack sufficient competitiveness might be Tryamkin and Virtanen. An older example might be Todd Bergen who had a great playoff but just didn`t want to do it.

    Somewhere between the eye test and psychological profiling can a prospect be identified as suitably competitive but as of right now it is very hit and miss to the point where we don`t question the talent of Juolevi but his success depends on his competitive nature or lack of.

  • Locust

    Surprised this article didn’t end with a “buy my T shirt” ad……

    “You can pull data for eternity, but applying that data to something that is subjective like scouting is where things can get lost.” That is true and that is my biggest beef with the graphaholics. They have all the numbers, trends and tendencies but they don’t know how to apply them in a real life situation. I’ve spent time in the U.S. and the number of baseball stats-nerds is amazing … and I never met one who was ever competent enough ‘to play’ baseball at any level – that is why they became stats-nerds. They “think” they know the game – but they don’t.

    Stats are interesting, informative and occasionally useful – but besides the compilation component – real hockey people need to make the decisions. Period.

    Go Florida Go …. right … ?

  • Carl Jung

    The quality of online hockey analytics is going downhill.

    NHL teams have pilfered the best talent (i.e. Josh Weissbock) and what we are left with is platforms such as Canucks Army that people visit largely out of habit and convenience.

    While CA is very timely on a number of breaking stories, the quality of analysis is nowhere near what it was 3 summers ago before NHL teams started hijacking the best talent.

    Which is why the Nation Network tries to proclaim its “independence” as often as possible.

    NHL executives are laughing at online bloggers that have no real power other than that which they assign to themselves.

    The big leagues will continue to hijack the best talent and toss them away once they’ve had their fun with them.

    Ten bucks says JD Burke is going to use his youth pursuing hockey blogging only to end up middle aged and struggling.

  • neal

    Just as a team gets older and needs new blood, so does the scouting staff. Enough of this good old boy stuff. Vancouver needs to look at bringing in new scouts.

    • Neil B

      The’ve done so. In 2013 there was a major restructuring of the scouting; in 2015, there was a complete overhaul of the structure, the reporting, and a reassignment of personnel. People often confuse end results of player development processes with ‘good scouting’. I think our issue is more one of poor player development processes than one of bad drafting.

      An example might be Carl Neill; as he ‘progressed’ through his Q career, his counting numbers increased, but his likelihood of making the NHL, through various models, actually decreased. In other words, he regressed through his development process with us. Now, that could be as simple as the player not working on the things that were given him by the player development people (notably skating); or it could be that they rationalized their budget to support players more likely to make it to the NHL in the first place. Or it could be that he was given incorrect or difficult-to-parse information from the development team as guidelines in the first place.

      I find it interesting that at least 4 prospects came into the season less NHL-ready than they were the year prior (Groot, Virtanen, McCann–according to reports out of FLA– and Neill). To me, that suggests that there were either communications errors or outright mistakes made in the player development department. One or two might be coincidence; that many suggests a problem, at least to my eye.

      • Carl Jung

        And yet the Canucks have “developed” Horvat, Baertschi, Granlund, Hutton, Stecher & Markstrom in the last 3 years.

        Heck, even Tryamkin has developed well enough for a 2014 3rd rounder that people are whining about his departure.

        McCann developed into a tradable asset which I would argue is also quite important. Most good teams draft well and then use some of those picks in trade (such as Nashville when acquiring Subban, Forsberg, Neal, Johansen & Fisher).

        Whether or not Gudbranson develops into a legit top 4 defender (he’s entering the same age range that Tanev was when he became a top 4 defender) remains to be seen.

        Only in Canuckistan do people whine about late picks like Carl Neill that turn into nothing. Literally every single team is going to miss on the majority of their draft picks.

        The only clear misstep (at this point in time) is Virtanen.

        But it’s debatable if that misstep is more about a poor draft selection or poor developmental process.

        • Neil B

          Not sure that I would use Markstrom as a counter-point in your argument 🙂 but I do hear what you are saying.

          I don’t, however, think you have understood my point. How Tryamkin, or Sven, or Granny, develop *during the season, on the NHL roster*, has nothing to do with the development team, and everything to do with the coaches, video & skills consultants, and trainers. It is a telling point that all the players that the Canucks developed did so while under Willie D, and not under Ryan Johnson & Scott Walker, the people in charge of player development. Now, we’re still in a small sample size on the player development front, so it’s too early to run to judgement. But if we’re going to compete long-term, we need to grow & develop our own talent; and that means that players coming through all levels of our system improve–not just the ones who luck out & get a start in the bigs.

          • Carl Jung

            Markstrom has at least “developed” to the point of being a respectable backup/tandem goalie.

            One could argue (similar to Baertschi & Granlund) – that Markstrom was previously mismanaged by shuttling him between the NHL & AHL multiple times a season.

            And the previous regime further exacerbated this by throwing Markstrom (and Lack) into the fire after the Luongo trade (I believe the Canucks had the lowest team save percentage for the duration of the 2013-2014 season).

            You’re picking and choosing what “player development” means to suit your narrative.

            It is true, though, that it is a small sample size on the Benning regime in terms of “player development”.

            But early in the goings, I’d say the only guy that looks like a notable misstep is Virtanen.

            Boeser, Baertschi, Granlund & Stecher more than make up for that, though.