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.
— platinum seat ghosts (@3rdPeriodSuits) September 13, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.