Monday, December 3, 2007

Globe Story: I'm supposedly "too close" to the scouts

A week ago a friend of mine at the Globe and Mail asked if I'd be interested in writing something for the Saturday paper about the Leafs' scouting department. In asking me to do the sttory, it's likely he presumed that the scouting department of the team was either as dysfunctional as the rest of the MLSE's hockey division or the root cause of the mess. That is, after all, the presumption of the media in general and a lot of Leafs fans. And my friend had in hand a long screed of Toronto’s draft failures, going back 20 years. Well, I can only write what I report ... which is to say, I can't make up the facts I gather in the field. When I asked scouts in other organizations about the Leafs' scouting performance they weren't exactly flattering but neither were they nearly as critical as Toronto media and fans:

Given the media maelstrom around the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, it's heretical to accuse any division of management of competence.

And the conventional wisdom is that the Leafs' struggles are the product of awful drafts, which are the byproduct of poor amateur scouting. Critics conclude that Toronto's scouting department is either understaffed, underqualified or asleep at the wheel.

Yet those who work as scouts for other NHL teams don't buy it. They don't quite give the Leafs scouts a ringing endorsement or praise them for being in the scouting fraternity's elite. They do, however, place the Toronto's scouts in the middle of the league's pack.

"The Leafs scouts are no worse than average, maybe a bit better, a lot better than the worst clubs," a veteran scout for a Western Conference club said. "The idea that they're not out there or missing things — I'm at 200 games in a season and I see [Toronto scouts] at most of them."

"[The Leafs scouts] compare pretty favourably with most clubs," said a scouting director, who recently put together an evaluation of NHL draft records going back to 2000. "They've had a couple of bad misses in there but so does everybody. The draft and the scouts aren't what's hurting the team. The problem is that the Leafs' management has traded away high picks — the scouts haven't had much to work with."

That was the consensus in a survey of NHL scouts. The pundits and the talking heads, those who will call for general manager John Ferguson's job or even actively lobby for it, might claim this vote of confidence for the team's amateur scouts is simply a matter of their friends reflexively defending their own. This, however, isn't the case — none contacted for this story had any history with the organization or staff members.

A quick glance at the Leafs' recent picks might lead one to believe that they've been slow to pick up a couple of trends in scouting, namely the USHL and Provincial A (or Junior A) as sources of talent. In the 2007 draft, more players were drafted from the USHL than from Russia and the number of highly drafted players from Canadian junior leagues outside the CHL are also on the rise.

Until 2007, they'd largely been absent from Toronto's drafts.

Scouts in other organizations say this doesn't mean the Leafs have been overlooking these leagues. "They might not have drafted players from there, but I know the Leafs were watching them," an Eastern Conference scout said. "You can't know where Toronto had them on the final list … they might have missed out on a USHL player by a pick or two."

The media's sweeping criticisms of Toronto's scouting staff blithely ignore a complicating issue: turnover. The club's regime changes over the past decade prompted shifts in the staff. There are a few constants — most notably, assistant general manager Mike Penny — but like most other teams in the business, scouts come and go.

The critics will blast Toronto for the selection of Nikolai Antropov in 1998 and in the next breath praise the Ottawa Senators for coming up with defenceman Andrej Meszaros with their first-rounder, 23rd overall, in 2004. Fact is, Anders Hedberg — first a Leaf scouting director, later the man in Ottawa — made both picks.

Barry Trapp, the former head scout for Hockey Canada, was installed as the Leafs' amateur-scouting director before the 2002 draft. John Ferguson Jr. let Trapp go before the 2006 draft and promoted veteran scout Dave Morrison to the post.

Former Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher is remembered for saying "draft, shmaft," and "first-rounders are a dime a dozen" when he supposedly turned down offers of a first-round pick for Wendel Clark. But in another moment near the end of his tenure in Toronto — thinking more clearly, you'd have to presume — Fletcher suggested that the most valuable player in hockey was "a player on his entry-level contract who plays on your first two lines." The rationale: A major contributor who is subject to the rookie salary cap allows a general manager to spend more freely elsewhere on the roster.

What was true in the spendthrift past is all the more true these days in the hard-and-fast payroll cap. No surprise that the past two Stanley Cup winners featured players in this role: Carolina, with Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd and Cam Ward; Anaheim with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Former Globe and Mail hockey columnist Gare Joyce is the author of a new book, Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover In The Secret World of NHL Scouts.

A couple of comments rolled in, not much traffic really.

Jeff Taylor from Canada writes: From his books, it's obvious that Joyce knows the scouting field and junior hockey world. But I wonder if he's grown too close to those he writes about. He could do to be a little more skeptical of his sources. The accompanying article shows that Toronto has drafted poorly for a long time. Why didn't Joyce challenge his sources with those facts instead of accepting their supposed wisdom at face value? Maybe Joyce has gotten too cozy with the scouting community.

Rob Kirsic from Brampton, writes: Just because Leaf scouts show up to 200 games in a season, doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to scout properly - at the most basic level, they're just another fan at a game. The Leafs scouting and drafting has been atrocious and part is JFJs fault, part of past management's - in the 80s Ballard controlled everything and didn't allow the GMs to draft good people, the other part to blame is the director of scouting now Mike Penny - that guy is a waste of time and space and should have been fired as soon as Barry Trapp was hired on. But because he was a Quinn guy he stays on...the internal politics at MLSE also is to blame for the screwed up nature of the Leafs. And Jeff - I agree, I think the author has gotten a bit too comfortable with the fraternity to be able to seperate (sic) his bias and focus on the problem of the Leafs.

All pretty interesting. First of all, I didn’t say that the Leafs were an average scouting organization or that they had done a decent job with their recent drafts. No, that was the judgment of the Leafs scouts’ peers. To tell you the truth, though I’ve followed the league and drafts with a professional interest for more than a decade, though I’ve been to thousands of NHL and junior games over the years, I don’t feel qualified to render a judgment about a NHL team’s scouting department. Obviously Mr Taylor and Mr Kirsic are more qualified than me. Seemingly, they’re more qualified than the scouts from organizations who, in their careers, have played in the NHL, coached in the league or occupied the general manager’s office. I’m not particularly close to the Leafs’ scouting staff. I’d say that I have one friend on the staff but Shawn Simpson is a pro scout and a fairly recent arrival to boot--and as such he doesn’t have much input into the Leafs’ scouting record. One fellah on the Leafs’ staff I’ve had words with—Mike Penny—but I wouldn’t let that colour my opinions. (Fact is, I think we patched it up a bit when last our paths crossed.) I honestly don’t know how much clearer I could have made it—I mean, one scout I quoted wasn’t just making an off-hand ranking … I mention that he had just concluded a study of league-wide scouting trends and teams’ performances over a seven-year period going back to 2000 (the Leafs’ Brad Boyes draft, which looks pretty good right now).

Those making the comments attached to the Globe story and the knockers of the Leafs’ scouts see things in a vacuum. You want to know about bad drafting: ask an Edmonton fan. One year not so long ago the Oilers took a Slovak player who wasn’t eligible … making matters worse, other teams lobbied to let Edmonton keep his rights (because they figured he was such a poor player the Oilers were worse off saddled with them rather than receiving any sort of compensation pick). In Edmonton it’s Jason Bonsignore and Steve Kelly, Michel Reisen, Michael Heinrich, Jani Rita and Jesse Niinimaki—the ’27 Yankees of draft flops. That’s just the first-rounders. (One of the former Islanders first-rounders they traded for in the Ryan Smyth deal, Ryan O’Marra, is already in the ECHL.) In Montreal the Canadiens’ first-round follies include Terry Ryan, Eric Chouinard (painfully, instead of his Remparts team-mate Simon Gagne), Jason Ward (at least bilingual), Brad Brown and Matt Higgins. (In Future Greats, I write about other teams being off 2006 first-rounder David Fischer.) In Calgary, no scout has dined out on Brent Krahn, Rico Fata and Daniel Tkaczuk as first-rounders or Eric Nystrom at No. 10 in 2002 (over Keith Ballard, Alexander Semin, Steve Eminger or Chris Higgins, who went in the next four picks). Then there was the obese Russian goaltender Medvedev, comic relief in the second round. Ottawa has done a pretty solid job with its drafts—some of it has been with the advantage of position on the grid but certainly not all. Funny thing is, they’ve had a lot of turn-over in the scouting personnel over the years and still find players—though first rounders Mathieu Chouinard and Jakup Klepis (wisely traded) aren’t among them.

I write all this to make the point that any scouting staff will have Hall of Shame picks. Yeah, the Leafs draft poorly. Like everybody else.


Matt Gunn said...

Great post, Gare. Thanks again for the enjoyable read.

You can look at any team in the league and find about 25% of their first round picks just plain stink. It happens to every team.

Fans of course follow their own team the closest, so it's only natural those mistakes are coming to come across much stronger in their eyes.

Jonathan said...

//In Edmonton it’s Jason Bonsignore and Steve Kelly, Michel Reisen, Michael Heinrich, Jani Rita and Jesse Niinimaki—the ’27 Yankees of draft flops.//

In all fairness, however, most of those guys were picked under the Glen Sather regime, where the head of the scouting department (Barry Fraser) lived in Mexico. Things turned around under Lowe/Howson, and while not perfect, they've come up with some pretty good picks (including first round wins in Hemsky, Cogliano & Gagner)