Janne Kekalainen

Evaluating prospective draft picks goes way beyond hockey skills

By Jim Diamond

Heading into this weekend’s NHL Draft, there are large volumes of data and statistics available on the potential draftees. Teams know how many goals and assists the skaters have accumulated and how many wins and losses the goaltenders have posted in the years leading up to the draft. Scouts from the respective teams have watched countless games and know what the players can do on the ice aside from what the statistics can tell them – how hard a forward gets back in transition or how a defenseman’s first pass out of the zone looks.

Drafts are the lifeblood for many NHL teams. Keeping a steady stream of top-notch prospects available in the pipeline usually means the difference between organizational success and failure. But knowing how many points a guy had last season only tells part of the story of the kids teams are looking at making a significant investment in beginning this weekend.

A majority of the players who will hear their names called at the draft in Philadelphia are just 17 or 18-years-old. Projecting where these kids will be hockey-wise when they are NHL ready is difficult enough, but prognosticating their emotional development is a completely different story.

“I think it is the hardest thing in sports,” Nashville Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton said.

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Who among us did not have some degree of knuckleheadedness when we were 18?

So in addition to seeing what players can do on the ice, the scouts talk to coaches, teachers, or anyone else who may have some information that could prove valuable to the team in their research.

“It’s tough,” Predators Swedish scout Lucas Bergman said. “As an 18-year-old, some guys have maturity right away and some guys don’t. I think that’s our job; talking to coaches, talking to all the contacts that we know, and putting in effort to meet the kid and try to find out those things.”

Then there are the parents. The apples usually don’t fall too far from the trees, so getting to know the parents is another tool teams use in evaluating a player, but that takes some interpretation as well.

“How many hockey dads and hockey moms have you seen that you would classify as crazy?” Fenton added. “We’re probably all one of them, including myself at some point with my kids playing. We have to decipher through all of that and see where the kid may come out.”

Teams also interview the players, and quite frequently, those interviews can turn very intense. They want to see how the player acts under pressure. If there are any skeletons in the player’s metaphorical closet, the team probably knows about them and will grill him in the pre-draft talks.

“The information that you find out sometimes is not exactly what you want to find out, and you have to weigh is it worth taking a chance on a kid,” Fenton said.

Sounding part hockey scout and part philosopher, Predators Finnish scout Janne Kekalainen admits that part of the profession involves some degree of guessing.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and actually when you kind of get to know more, you realize how much you don’t know also,” he said. “With some kids, you get that feeling that this is the guy and when it’s strong, then you know, ‘I go for this.’ Then there are players who are tough to figure out because they haven’t even figured out themselves what they are going to be yet.”

When draft day comes around, a decision needs to be made, and when it comes down to it, teams usually just have to trust their instincts.

“In my philosophy, kids with strong passion and strong minds, they make their way through,” Kekalainen added. “When you find that, then a lot of times things go as you project them to. Still, science hasn’t come up with measurements guaranteed to evaluate human minds. And we’re only scouts, so it’s not easy.”