Is Ottawa's Amateur Scouting Truly Better Than Their Pro Scouting?
Part One: Amateur Scouting Overview
When you think of the word Scout in professional sports, you often think of arena or stadium rats who go from town to town watching games and being the lifeblood of junior, NCAA and professional sports franchises and their prospects. When portrayed in movies, they are often not in the best of shape, nor do they dress for success and they usually have a fedora or trench coat depending on the sport you are watching.
The sport of hockey is no exception to these stereotypes. However, lines do not always get drawn between two very different aspects of this critical job. It would not be fair to say that scouting is scouting. Professional sports franchises typically have a professional and amateur division comprised of completely different groups of people. Let us examine each aspect from the Ottawa Senators standpoint and then do a comparison and see where we land. The focus of late has been on the Amateur Scouting staff and their results so we will start there.
I wrote recently about Trent Mann who is the Director of Amateur Scouting for the Ottawa Senators along with his brother, Troy, who is the Belleville head coach. That was more of an expose about them and their impacts on the team. We did not really evaluate the body of work of the entire Amateur Scouting department. It would be fair to say that, of late, the Senators amateur scouting division is getting lauded quite a bit more than their pro scouting counterparts. Why is that and who is behind it?
Let us look at the org chart for clarity or lack thereof.
From a sheer volume and size perspective, the amateur scouting department appears to be more invested. Trent Mann has Chief European Scout, Mikko Ruutu, reporting to him as well as six amateur scouts to cover North America. Anton Ostberg is also part of the European scouting division which appears to roll up to Mann. Pro scouting has less than half of that.
For a team that has tried to build through the draft, the perceived discrepancy would seem to make sense on the surface. Granted, not all the amateur scouts are full time. Most of them are.
However, is there more ground to cover in the amateur ranks than the professional ones?
Amateur scouting is primarily the scouting of players who are eligible for upcoming drafts. This is their bread and butter. Pierre Dorion may be the one announcing the name in the first round. Make no mistake about it, the scouts brought him that name. Consider Egor Sokolov, whom the Senators drafted in round 2 (61) in the 2020 draft. He was in his last year of eligibility in Cape Breton which means he had been passed on in two previous drafts. He is now having a solid season as first year pro in Belleville.
The common misconception is that it is simply a matter of watching games and reporting back to the mother ship. But it also has to do with researching players to build a profile. You need to find out if the player is as impressive on the inside as they appear to be on the outside. This would involve speaking to coaches, past and present, the prospect himself or anyone else that might provide insight into the player’s character. Finally, even at the amateur level, there is the temptation to look at a player’s analytics. It is not clear to what extent the Senators amateur staff relies on these statistics. That said, it is free information, and they would surely look at it, if for no other reason, to validate or disprove what they believe about a player.
Amateur scouts do not simply scout players for upcoming drafts. It is also their responsibility to keep tabs on the players that have been drafted by the Sens but are still developing. This requires a great deal of resources as well. Conveniently, these players are playing against upcoming draft eligible players so there is some overlap. However, three major junior leagues, the USHL, the NCAA, Tier II junior leagues across Canada and European development leagues is a lot to cover.
Finally, a good/great scout will also use some trade craft to get an idea who their opponents scouts are interested in. This is information that could prove handy on draft day. They may even counsel the GM to give up a pick to move up and take a player or to trade down knowing the player they want will still be there.
Take Tyler Kleven of North Dakota, for instance. The Sens traded up to get him at #44 giving up the 59th and 64th picks to Toronto as they believed he would not make it to 59. They may have even believed that a team picking right after Toronto had him on their radar. Conversely, in another move, the Senators traded down to #26 and chose Jacob Bernard-Docker with their 2nd pick in the 1st round in 2018 after using the 4th overall pick to select Brady Tkachuk. They knew that the Central Scouting had him ranked in the bottom half of the second round and acquired an extra pick by moving down as they knew Bernard-Docker would still be there and he was the asset they coveted.
Amateur scouts are evaluating and projecting a lot more of a what player could be than what they simply are today. You are dealing with young men who are not fully grown physically or mentally. Trying to get inside a kid’s mind and figuring out if he has what it takes can be tricky.
We all hear about the success stories of the amateur draft as these players ascend to the NHL. However, has the amateur scouting been that good or is it a case of cyclical patterns when teams are bad for a prolonged period of time? Obviously, fans are all thrilled with Thomas Chabot, Tim Stutzle, Brady Tkachuk, Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson. It is easy to be enamored. Having said that, third and fourth overall picks should be impressive. Chabot (18th overall), Batherson (4th round) and Formenton (2nd round) likely speak more to the scouting ability than top five picks because so many teams passed on them. Jake Sanderson is someone we heard was special and he would appear to be on course for a great career. However, that Kleven trade up to get him at #44 last year or trading down to get Bernard-Docker in 2018 could prove to be bigger feathers in their caps considering what they did to get them.
That said, only one player (Stutzle) from the last two drafts is playing in the NHL right now though Shane Pinto and Bernard-Docker are expected to play shortly. None of the 2016 draft picks have found a permanent home in the NHL including Logan Brown who went 11th overall. There is nothing left of the 2014 draft class in the organization. Thomas Chabot, Colin White and Joey Daccord are the 2015 survivors. However, for every Tyler Kleven we trade up to get, there is a Gabriel Gagne as well.
The key to remember here is that amateur scouts miss too. Amateur scout misses tend to get a lot less attention than their hits unless they are high picks. Pierre Dorion also traded up one pick to get Logan Brown. The book is still out on him but an 11th overall pick who does not pan out require some explaining.
I would agree that, overall, the amateur scouting department is yielding solid returns right now and I would expect them to. The Senators are a bad team and have picked early of late. I would expect some food on my plate. For now, given the Senators are a team in rebuild, I would agree that the emphasis needs to be on amateur scouting. However, if the club makes the strides it hopes to in the coming years and starts picking lower in the draft, do not be too hard on the Senators amateur scouts if their picks take longer to develop.
That is when amateur scouts really earn their keep.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey
Part Two: A View of Ottawa's Pro Scouting
Part Three: Is Ottawa's Amateur Scouting Truly Better Than Their Pro Scouting?