When it comes to analysis and coverage of the NHL Draft, you'll be hard-pressed to find better, more thorough coverage than what you'll find across the SB Nation network of hockey blogs this week. We've got 8 bloggers heading to Montreal with press credentials to work the event itself, a Mock Draft which is still in progress, more prospect profiles than you can handle, and some solid historical perspective to boot. Forget the fact that we're in late June, it's a good time to be a hockey fan. Your one-stop shop for all this draft juiciness is the SB Nation NHL Draft Hub, where you can see what's going on across all these blogs.
Today, I'm glad to bring you an interview with Jeff Kealty, the Chief Amateur Scout for the Nashville Predators. A former 1st-round selection by the Quebec Nordiques back in 1994, Jeff played collegiate hockey at Boston University and has been with Nashville's scouting department since the 2001-2 season. Despite being in the middle of preparations for this week's draft, Jeff was kind enough to discuss subjects like comparing prospects coming out of diverse leagues, the use of video and statistical analysis in the scouting process, and the Predators' philosophy relative to amateur scouting and player development.
Q: First I wanted to ask how is your group structured, and how does the scouting process unfold over the course of a season?
A: We have three amateur scouts in Europe and six in North America, and then myself as Chief Amateur Scout, and Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton, who is involved as well, he oversees all scouting with the Preds. The beginning of the year is usually spent identifying the talent that's out there for the coming year, and at about the halfway point, you really key in on the guys we think will be a high priority for us. It's really an ongoing discussion, we had meetings in January, more meetings again at the end of the year, and even when we break from our meetings there's still plenty of week to be done. Even now in these last couple weeks we've had several conference calls, just going over everything and moving things around on our list as we feel necessary. It's not an exact science at all, so the more you communicate, the more information you have, the more prepared you're going to be.
Q: How do you go about comparing prospects in North America vs. Europe, considering the fact that a kid in Canadian junior is likely playing a major role in a league stocked with his peers, while a young player in the Swedish Elite League is playing against grown men, and may only get limited ice time?
A: Every kid, no matter where he's playing, is a bit different. You have major junior in Canada, you have kids playing in Europe, you have high school and college in the U.S., so you have all different levels of play and avenues that players can come from. One thing that we try to focus on is just watching the intangibles with players, because sometimes no matter what league you play in, those intangibles (like hockey sense, work ethic, and character) are what can elevate a player's game from one level to the next.
Q: That's a common theme we've heard often from the Predators organization, that they really look for specific types of individuals. When you talk about judging character, a lot of people just assume that's indicated by a kid that's stayed out of trouble. Can you perhaps learn more, however, about a player who has gone through a situation, whether a personal mistake, or an injury, and seeing how they react? I'm thinking in particular about a player like Scott Glennie, who came back from a broken elbow to play well in the WHL playoffs. When you judge character, what are the sorts of things that stand out?
A: It can be identified several different ways. Maybe a player who's been injured and persevered, or a player who has been cut, or not as heralded coming up, but has proven to be hell-bent and determined to prove everyone wrong. It could be a guy who always rises to the occasion when a game is on the line... those are the guys you really want to have, the guys that have won championships. Can they play through adversity? Can they handle it when the pressure gets turned up? That, in addition to being good teammates, good workers, those are the traits that are going to help them continue to develop. That's one of the things about the NHL draft as opposed to the NFL, for example, the fact that we're drafting 18 year-olds. It takes a long time from there [to playing in the NHL], so you really have to be able to forecast where a player's development is going to go. A lot of times, those intangibles can help you make that forecast. You know these kids are going to get bigger and stronger, but will they have the things underneath the hood that will make them succeed?
Q: Looking ahead to the #11 pick, does that lend itself to a "best player available" mindset, or is there a specific focus on an organizational need like goal-scoring forwards?
A: I don't think you can ever go wrong taking the best player available, we try to stick to that philosophy. There are certain situations where you can strategize more, but the general rule of thumb that we take into any draft is to take the best player available. It takes time for these players to develop into key contributors, 4 to 5 years, and you don't know how your team will look at that time, so by taking the best player and having that asset, it puts you in the best position.
Q: When you talk about that #11 pick, are there any specific players that you can mention that you're looking at?
A: I'd prefer not to. [hey, I had to try]
Q: When it comes to the bottom of the draft, those late rounds, you're making a choice out of a pool of players that will be available as free agents to anyone. With that in mind, does it allow you to take more risk with a project that may take a lot of work and probably won't make it, but the high end potential makes it worth taking a stab?
A: With the later rounds, you're looking for a guy who has something in his game or makeup that gives him a chance - maybe it's size, maybe playing in a league that's not as well covered, or a guy who has been passed over a year or two and now has a bit of a stigma attached to him. You can take more of a risk there, but you need to find that hidden quality that you think gives them a chance. One thing with David Poile, he always says there are players to be found in every round of the draft, you just have to go out and find them.
Q: Given the number of players and leagues, and the sheer geography that you guys need to cover, how much do you guys utilize resources like Central Scouting or video in the process?
A: Central Scouting is used as an identification tool, to see at the beginning of the year who's out there, but after that it's up to us to determine who are the guys we want. As far as video goes, it's definitely a tool that's out there more, and I believe can be used in a supplemental manner. It can help you to refresh yourself on a player you may not have seen for a while. But at the end of it all, there's not much substiture for game-live action that you're seeing in the arena. As you know, watching a game on TV is one thing, but being there live you can see the speed of the action, and all the little things you'd miss otherwise.
Q: When it comes to statistical analysis, is that something you can use to at least compare players in the same league like the OHL? I'm thinking of stuff beyond mere goals and assists, like Total Shots For and Against while on the ice (Corsi), etc.
A: At the lower levels, sometimes things like Scoring Chances aren't tracked like they are at the NHL level, so you have to take it based on what the source is. Goals, assists and shots are pretty standard, so it's something we take note of. We use it to support what we think of a player, but there are so many variables like which teammates you're playing with, how much ice time you're getting, how much power play time you're getting, those sorts of things. We do look at them, but it's to support what we're seeing.
Q: Looking ahead to the overall 2009 draft class, how do you see it compared to recent year? Which traits are more plentiful or not this time around?
A: I see there being good depth in the draft, through the first couple rounds. The good thing for us is to have as many picks as we do. I feel we'll get a good pick at #11, and there's a good amount of depth to use the other picks we have as well. [NOTE: Nashville has 2 picks in both the 2nd and 3rd round this year.]
Q: When you have a player who faces the choice between going to Canadian junior vs. the NCAA, is there a preference from your side, considering how much college hockey experience you have in the Predators front office?
A: Both routes have their pros and cons. From the junior route, these kids are learning a lot of the details of the program at a younger age, in terms of a longer season, more travel, and long playoffs with seven-game series. In college, the kids are older, stronger, more physically developed, so in that sense you can compare a player differently that way. As an organization, we look at certain programs within each option that we prefer, but generally we look at it as "a hockey player is a hockey player", and he'll succeed no matter where he's playing. Also, once we get him within our system, we feel that we do a good job developing them and putting them on a good track.
Q: As Chief Amateur Scout, how involved are you with players once they get drafted into the Predators organization?
A: For all the players we've drafted, our regional scouts will keep in touch with them going forward, and as I travel around I'll keep tabs as well. If I'm out in Vancouver watching Evander Kane play for this year's draft, for example, I'll check in with [2007 1st-round pick] Jonathan Blum as well, to see how he's doing. It's more just to touch in on things. Our conditioning camp is coming up in July, and I'll be down there for the whole week. I really enjoy that process and the chance to interact with all of the young guys.
Q: And how does that mesh with Martin Gelinas' new role as Director of Player Development?
A: We have our regional guys who know these players the best, so they have an ongoing relationship with them even after they're picked, because they see them fairly frequently. With Martin Gelinas, that's definitely a role we haven't had, with his experience and knowledge. If you look at how he helped some of his younger teammates later in his playing career, he will be a great asset for us going forward. He will be instrumental in the development of these kids.
Thanks to Jeff for taking the time out for this interview, and Kevin Wilson with the Predators for setting this up.