TORONTO, ONT - JUNE 22: (L-R) Director of Hockey Operations Trevor Timmins, Director of Player Personnel Jarmo Kekalainen, General Manager Marshall Johnston, Cheif Amateur Scout Frank Jay and Scout Dale Engel of The Ottawa Senators stands with 16th overall pick Jakub  Klepis during the first round NHL Draft on June 22, 2002 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI)

The art of scouting for the NHL’s annual Entry Draft has always intrigued me. Taking a year’s worth of individual 17-year and 18-year old players scattered in dozens of leagues all around the world, evaluating them, and putting them in a list that ostensibly predicts their value over a 10 to 20-year career at the NHL level is a daunting, awe-inspiring task.

Often, I’d picture a conference table surrounded by serious-looking men, each with a laptop or pages of notes, statistics, and intelligence gleaned from coaches and managers everywhere from Seattle to Khabarovsk, debating the relative values of each player and ranking them accordingly.

The more I read about scouting, though, the more that picture fades.

There’s a good – if slightly melodramatic – article on Thrashers’ defenceman and Norris Trophy candidate Dustin Byfuglien in this week’s issue of MacLean’s, and it contains a relevant anecdote from Marshall Johnston.

Johnston’s easily one of the most respectable experts on scouting in the game today. He’s a former NHL player who has coached and managed at seemingly every level. He broke into the NHL’s executive ranks with the Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils organization, and spent a decade as Director of Player Personnel for the club. He moved from there to Ottawa, where he spent some time behind the scenes before becoming G.M.; looking for a lighter workload he stepped down from that position, moved on to Chicago and his since found work running Carolina’s scouting department. He’s had a lot of success in drafting and player development.

It was Johnston who was responsible for the Blackhawks’ selection of Byfuglien, as related in the article:

Byfuglien was drafted to the Western Hockey League, and landed in Prince George—“I didn’t even know there was anything up that far in B.C.,” he admits—where he played what may have been the most important game of his career, catching, purely by chance, the attention of a former NHL scout. Marshall Johnston, who was then in Chicago’s front office, was visiting a prospect in Portland, Ore. On a whim, he drove up to Seattle to catch their game against Prince George. He was just there as a fan, but the memory of Byfuglien, “who must have played 40 minutes—at forward, defence, skating, shooting the puck, passing the puck,” never left him. Fast-forward to Nashville, more than a year later, near the dirty end of the 2003 draft. “Anybody got anybody they like?” the Blackhawks manager asked his staff. “Nobody said anything,” says Johnston. “So I said, ‘Yeah. I got a guy I like.’ So we took him.”

The amazing thing is that Byfuglien was still there to be taken with the 16th pick of the eighth round. In the five picks preceding the Blackhawks’ selection, teams had taken:

  • Mike Sullivan, the second-best forward on the OPJHL’s Stouffville Spirit
  • Jan Marek, a diminutive European over-ager who never crossed the pond (but has, admittedly, had a nice KHL career)
  • Eduard Lewandowski, a 23-year old winger coming off a six goal season in Germany
  • Jimmy Bonneau, fresh off one goal and 261 PIM in the QMJHL
  • Cam Cunning, a 20-point forward for Kamloops

Compared to these, the statistical case for Byfuglien was undeniable. The defenceman stood 6’4”, had 37 points in 48 games for Prince George, and most impressively finished plus-10 on a team that ended the year minus-60.

Certainly, this isn’t how teams pick top prospects. Last season’s first overall selection, Taylor Hall, would have been seen again and again by every NHL team, undoubtedly since his mid-teens. Players getting selected early on generally have been seen by multiple scouts many times each, helping teams to form a balanced opinion based on multiple viewings over the full course of a season.

Later on in the draft, the process becomes less scientific. Johnston’s anecdote is not an isolated example – teams take flyers on late-round picks based on limited reports from individual scouts. Anson Carter was snagged late solely on the basis of his speed; Evgeni (“John”) Nabokov was a virtual unknown to most San Jose scouts when that club picked him late in the 1994 draft.

This is where the strength of statistics lie. I have the utmost respect for the abilities of NHL scouts to spot a range of things that will decide if a player is going to make it or not; the track record of the league as a whole leaves no room for doubt that these are talented people. But late in the draft, when a large number of players are left to be selected on the basis of one or two games, it becomes a crapshoot. There, the more limited data provided by statistics covering the whole season can become more useful than the specialized observations provided by a scout over the span of one or two games.