On Scouting, Drafting and Profiling

Harry How

A look back at some near-real-time assessments of recent Caps draft picks ahead of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft

[Learning to scout] is a lot like how the game comes to players, referees and coaches: they have that instinct, that sense, but I don’t know if you can ever teach that. Some people are born with that gift and other people sort of learn to play or think within certain parameters. Scouting is not about a hunch – that is too flippant – and it’s not about what the player is right now. It’s what he could be. Everything matters; his environment, who he is playing with, against, coaching, his commitment, his condition." – George McPhee, as quoted in Behind the Moves: NHL General Managers Tell How Winners are Built at p.138

With the 2013 NHL Entry Draft coming up this Sunday, you're going to be hearing a lot about a lot of players, most of whom you've never heard of and many of whom the people from whom you're hearing it have never heard of either. You'll consume every bit of information you can find on the kids the Caps pick and oscillate between feelings of hope that the Caps have found a diamond in the rough and regret at the pick they wasted instead of snagging the guy that a division rival took a little later, who's destined for stardom.

Much of what you read will end up being spot-on, and perhaps even more of it will be, well, other than that. Intuitively, you know this, but that's not going to stop you from treating these snippets as gospel, the truth handed down from on high until proven otherwise.

Every draft yields plenty of mixed results, of course, not just for the teams and their scouting staffs, but for the independent observers profiling prospects as well. A sampling of Caps selections over the past nine drafts (dating back to 2004) demonstrates as much. For example...

Been called the total package whose game is powered by speed. ... Good stickhandler and excellent playmaker. ... Perfect combination of size and finesse, and doesn't forget to get back on defense. ... Can take a hit and is more than willing to give one, too. ... A power forward with fine vision of the ice.

That's Central Scouting on Alex Ovechkin in 2004. It was also a layup... though that "doesn't forget to get back on defense" line is worth a chuckle.

That same source delivered the goods on Mike Green as well:

Good pivoting abilities with excellent mobility and agile movements. ... Skates well with deceptive speed. ... Makes good passes. Looks for long outlet passes for breakaways. ... An excellent leader, who is always poised on the ice. ... Confident player who can skate end to end with the puck.

What about the Caps' third first-rounder of that draft, Jeff Schultz?

Has gotten better on his defensive pivots, yet needs a few strides to get going on his skates. ... Is able to get passes off quickly and likes to send long outlet pass in search of down-the-middle breakaways. ... Plays while team is short-handed and get most of his points on power plays. ... Likes to jump into play to create odd-man rushes. ... Relies on hockey sense rather than physical style, but is not intimidated if play gets tougher.

Eh, all plausible, I suppose.

The Caps took those three players with the first, 27th and 29th pick in the draft, and all were fairly by-the-book picks, Ovechkin ranked by Central Scouting as the top European skater in the draft and Green and Schultz the ninth and twelfth North American skaters, respectively.

But just because CSS says it's so doesn't make it so. As former Habs GM Serge Savard was quoted as saying in Behind the Moves:

"We were wrong on the first round maybe 50 percent of the time. That's mainly because of Central Scouting. When Central Scouting comes out with their first-round list, all the scouts think, 'Oh, Christ, I better get this player in my list or I'll look bad.' [All the scouts'] lists are similar because of Central Scouting. I only had one guy, Rick Taylor, who didn't care about Central Scouting's list and his list was so different than the others.... How come we missed Luc Robitaille? One of my scouts, Rick Taylor, had Luc Robitaille [rated to be drafted] in the first round and nobody else had him in the top five rounds. The other scouts down-played Taylor. They said, 'You only see Quebec. You don't see Ontario. You don't see the West. You don't see college. You don't see Europe.' So scouting is a tough thing to do."

Maybe that's how Savard ended up picking Alfie Turcotte in the first round and boasting that his new center had "as much talent as Pat LaFontaine," the third pick in the draft. Oops. (Incidentally, Turcotte was selected one spot before the Blackhawks took... Bruce Cassidy. Bigger oops.) But don't feel too bad for the Habs on that Robitaille whiff - their first four picks in that 1984 draft were Petr Svoboda, Shayne Corson, Stephane Richer and a goalie named Patrick Roy, all of whom played more than 1,000 games in the League.

Anyway, all of this isn't just to say that ranking 18-year-olds based on where you think they'll be in two, three or ten years isn't easy (you knew that already), but rather to take a quick walk down memory lane and remind ourselves that scouting reports are frequent sources of impressive prescience and what, with 20/20 hindsight, are borderline comical misjudgments. For example...

Green: "Is a tremendous skater. Uses his solid frame effectively, especially in front of his own net. Projects to play as a top-six NHL defenseman, and may even wind up on the first pairing down the road. His calling will probably be as a stay-at-home defender, though he has untapped scoring potential. ... Like Schultz, Green is a WHL defenseman that the Capitals love. He may have more offensive potential than Schultz, though he isn't as strong defensively. " [The Hockey News; original link is dead, but the text is here]

Probably a stay-at-home defender who may have more offensive potential than Jeff Schultz. Nailed it.

Schultz: "Moves the puck well up the ice and is usually a sound positional defender. Doesn't use his 6-6 frame enough to punish opponents, and will need to step up his physical play going forward. Led the Hitmen defensemen in points in 2003-04, and projects as a solid point producer at the NHL level. ... Schultz is definitely top-four defenseman material, and he'll be an ice-time eater in Washington down the road. In fact, because of the dearth of quality defenders currently in D.C., expect Schultz to be a fast mover up the depth chart." [Ibid.]

Pretty much... other than the offense. And the "top-four material" part (though, in fairness, he certainly was that for a while and may be again... somewhere else). And a couple more from '04:

Chris Bourque, taken 33rd overall: "Must prove he's his own man in the game of hockey, and not merely a publicity stunt because of his famous father. ... The Capitals value character and grit, so the acquisition of Bourque at No. 33 makes sense. However, while he's the son of Ray Bourque, the feisty center is more in the Dale Hunter mold." [Ibid.]

Mikhail Yunkov, taken 62nd overall: "Is one of the best pure passers available in the 2004 draft. ... While Alexander Ovechkin is a slam-dunk to play in Washington right away, the team will take its time in fully developing Yunkov. He has the playmaking skills to one day line up next to Ovechkin but may be used more in a defensive role down the road." [Ibid.]

Moving on to 2005... (Must we? We must.)

Sasha Pokulok, taken 14th overall: A freshman at Cornell in 2004-05, Pokulok missed significant time because of a fractured clavicle; he's a huge physical specimen with excellent skating ability for his size; loves to play a physical game, and projects as a shutdown blueliner in the pro game; doesn't own natural offensive instincts, which limits his offensive potential; must learn to pick his spots better in terms of jumping up to make the big hit; should develop into a solid top-four d-man down the road. ... The Capitals go off the board to select Cornell blueliner Pokulok, who is a major reach at this stage of the draft. Since the Caps already have plenty of defensemen in the system, and since they lack offensive center depth, this draft selection is a real puzzler. [The Hockey News]

Joe Finley, taken 27th overall: Finley led the Stampede--and finished fifth in the USHL--with 181 penalty minutes in 2004-05; is one of the biggest specimens eligible for selection in the 2005 draft; owns a big-time slap shot from the point, and also displays consistent physical presence along the blueline; has not yet committed to an NCAA program and will likely return to Sioux Falls for the 2005-06 campaign; is a major project at present time, but will receive a lot of attention due to his imposing size. ... The Caps are stockpiling mammoth defensemen, which is not uncommon for this organization. However, somebody will have to step up at the center position, because it remains a huge weakness. Adding one of Finley or Sasha Pokulok would have been enough; two in the first round is overkill. [The Hockey News]

Nightmare draft lottery, nightmare draft.

Onward to 2006 (with a heck of a "what if?" mock draft here)...

Nicklas Backstrom, taken 4th overall: "Most prospects out of Sweden don't reach the Elitserien at age 18. Backstrom is the exception to the rule, after leading Brynas in scoring (26 points in 46 games) in 2005-06... what sets Backstrom apart from most other prospects is his patience with the puck and calm approach to the game. He rarely makes any mistakes, which is unusual for a player his age... Backstrom is an excellent passer and instinctual player, but can also play in physical contests due to a strong lower base... earned the gold medal with Sweden at the 2006 IIHF World hockey championships.... Backstrom is close to being NHL ready, which is perfect for the Caps and franchise winger Alexander Ovechkin. Backstrom is a natural playmaking center, which should fit in nicely with Ovechkin's penchant for lighting the lamp. Backstrom is also a sound two-way player and is solid on his skates. He should be in Washington by 2007--at the latest." [The Hockey News]

Semyon Varlamov, taken 23rd overall: "Varlamov is entrenched as Russia's current national junior goaltender, after appearing in five of six contests for his country at the 2006 World under-18 tournament. He was also a member of the 2006 WJC squad... owns plenty of upside thanks to an intriguing 6-1 frame and athleticism... The Capitals may start taking more Russians in the future, since their franchise player--Alexander Ovechkin--is Russian and a huge influence on the organization. Varlamov is seen as Olaf Kolzig's heir apparent in Washington, but it will take several years for the transition to take place. Varlamov is a little risky as a first rounder, but obviously the Caps see big-time potential." [The Hockey News]

Michal Neuvirth, taken 34th overall: "Neuvirth was the Czech Republic's No. 1 goaltender at the 2006 World under-18 tournament in Sweden, and even recorded a shutout... played with Sparta Praha's junior elite squad in 2005-06, and may graduate to the Extraliga next season... may not own the potential to be a starter in the NHL... Washington needed to add depth to the goaltending position, due to some question marks on the farm. Neuvirth will add to the stables and may ultimately succeed Kolzig between the pipes, though Semen Varlamov may have something to say about that." [The Hockey News]

Francois Bouchard, taken 35th overall: "With the severe lack of depth on the right side in Washington, Bouchard may even be a long shot to make the club with a good camp. If not, he will join Eric Fehr as one of the best right-wingers in the system. Damning…" [The Hockey News]

Oskar Osala, taken 97th overall: "... projects to become a classic power forward at the highest level..." [The Hockey News]

I always thought Osala would come through. Oh well. (And for a bunch more thoughts on the Caps' draft, click here.)

The Caps drafted blueliners with their first three picks in 2007. One turned into the team's most dependable rearguard, one turned into Sergei Fedorov and one turned into nothing...

Karl Alzner, taken 5th overall: "... has great size, mobility and the potential to play an all-around game from the back end; needs to make better use of his 6-2 frame in order to keep pro forwards honest ..." [The Hockey News]

Josh Godfrey, taken 34th overall: "... obvious offensive acumen but questionable defensive ability..." [The Hockey News]

Theo Ruth, taken 46th overall: "... owns underrated offensive upside and all-around potential..." [The Hockey News]

There's a ton more here, too. (Seriously, click through and read.)

Next, buckle up for 2008...

Anton Gustafsson, taken 21st overall: "Rated third among Swedes, and fifth among all Europeans, in Central Scouting's final rankings of International skaters, he is the son of former NHLer/current Swedish national team coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson... missed the 2008 IIHF World Under-18 Championships because of a back injury, but produced 10 goals and 23 points in 23 games with Frolunda's junior squad in 2007-08... has a very projectable frame, solid offensive acumen, two-way savvy and the aggressiveness that should translate well in the North American pro game... has so far appeared in just one game in the Elitserien.... Gustafsson is not just a feel-good story heading to Washington, as the son of former Caps start Bengt Gustafsson, but he's also a very solid addition to the emerging Caps organization. In a few years, Gustafsson could replace fellow Swede Michael Nylander as the team's second-line center--behind countryman Nicklas Backstrom. This is a solid pick, but one that will require patience on the part of Washington management. " [The Hockey News]

John Carlson, taken 27th overall: "A product of the New Jersey Rockets program in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, he spent the 2007-08 campaign with the Ice. He committed to the University of Massachusetts for 2008-09 but will instead play for the OHL's London Knights... has excellent size and a big shot from the point. He's also adept at quarterbacking his team's power play, which adds to his stock... is considered somewhat of a project, especially since he needs to improve his skating... as a rookie in the USHL, he led Indiana's defensemen with 12 goals and 43 points in 59 games.... The Capitals have stockpiled early picks on defensemen for a few years now, but not all have panned out. Therefore, they will continue in the same vein. In Carlson, they add a high-end prospect who will need a few years of development time. He's headed to the OHL's London Knights, so Washington hopes he can develop into an all-around stud. He's several years away. " [The Hockey News]

Eric Mestery, taken 57th overall: "At 6-5, 195 pounds, he has the projectable frame and defensive game to eventually become a valuable shutdown defender at the National Hockey League level... in order to maximize his potential as a stay-at-home type, he must become a little more aggressive in the defensive zone... doesn't take a lot of shots, so he will never become a big scorer in the pro ranks... is the type of bottom-pairing blueliner every NHL team needs... " [The Hockey News]

Braden Holtby, taken 93rd overall: "In 64 games as the starter in Saskatoon, he posted a respectable 25-29-8 mark, plus a 2.84 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in 2007-08... at 6-1, 205 pounds, he has good size and a lot of late-blooming potential... was rated fourth among North American goaltenders in Central Scouting's final rankings... has already proven capable of logging a lot of minutes between the pipes at the junior level, but must show the same ability once he turns pro... is considered a draft-day sleeper at the goaltending position... " [The Hockey News]

Late-blooming potential indeed.

2009 brought another trio of NHLers (we think)...

Marcus Johansson, taken 24th overall: "In his first regular-season action in the Elitserien, he produced 10 points in 45 games with the eventual champion squad in Farjestad... has two-way capability and excellent instincts... is a good face-off man when he plays center, but can also move over to the wing and be effective... isn't very big or strong, so he will need to add some bulk in order to become a better prospect for the North American game.... The Capitals are notorious for Swedish selections, so adding another in Johansson is not a surprise. He will be several years away from joining Washington, and will have to compete for ice time eventually with countrymen Nicklas Backstrom and Anton Gustafsson at the center position. He may have to make the Caps as a winger, as a result." [The Hockey News]

Dmitry Orlov, taken 55th overall: "At age 17, he appeared in 16 KHL contests with Novokuznetsk last season, producing one goal... is versatile from the back end and can play on either side of the ice effectively... moves very well and is adept at rushing up ice with the puck... he also knows when to jump into the play, and doesn't shy away from contact... projects as an offensive defenseman at the highest level, but his defensive game is also solid..." [The Hockey News]

Cody Eakin, taken 85th overall: "In his second year with the Broncos, he placed fifth on the club with 24 goals, and eighth in points with 48, in 54 games in 2008-09... has good speed and awareness, which helps him in defensive situations... works hard and is capable of providing his team with an energy spark from time to time... doesn't have ideal NHL size for the center position... was rated 29th among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings..." [The Hockey News]

The Caps went back to Russia (or Russians, rather) with their first two picks in 2010, and they're still waiting... and waiting... to get something out of them:

Evgeny Kuznetsov, taken 26th overall: "At the 2010 IIHF World U18 Championship in Minsk, he led Russia with 12 points in seven games--which placed him in a tie for fourth overall... has excellent hands, skill and a real nose for the net... can play all three forward positions... was rated No. 3 among European skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings... lacks ideal size for the NHL game, so he needs to add more strength in order to maximize potential.... The Capitals have a burgeoning tradition of Russian talent going, led by captain Alex Ovechkin, so adding Kuznetsov at this time is no surprise at all. He'll remain in the KHL for two seasons, and then maybe try his luck in North America. The Caps won't need his help for a while, though, so he could get caught in the numbers game. Still, he's likely the best player available and a solid asset for D.C." [The Hockey News]

Stanislav Galiev, taken 86th overall: "In his first season in the 'Q' in 2009-10, he finished second among rookies and fourth on the Sea Dogs with 60 points in 67 games... has great stick-handling ability and natural scoring instincts... is particularly adept at playmaking from his off-wing (left)... needs to get stronger in order to be better capable of competing against pros... gets into trouble when he tries to do too much with the puck... can play either wing position..." [The Hockey News]

The Caps sat out the first three rounds of 2011, trading their first for Troy Brouwer, their second for Joe Corvo (the Aristocrats!) and their third for Dennis Wideman, which brings us to 2012:

Filip Forsberg, taken 11th overall: "Toiling mostly in the Swedish Allsvenskan (second tier) in 2011-12, he produced eight goals and 17 points in 43 contests... has a very projectable frame (6-2) and plenty of goal-scoring upside... also displays two-way acumen and a lot of versatility in his overall game... needs to step up his level of play against stronger competition, as well as play a more physical game, in order to maximize his all-around potential... was the top rated European skater in Central Scouting's final rankings... has drawn a lot of physical comparisons to fellow Swede/former NHL star Mats Sundin.... Sometimes, you just have to take the best player available. This is definitely one of those times, as Forsberg wasn't expected to be around at No. 11. He'll spend one more season in Sweden, and then could join the Capitals. He's a low-maintenance winger who should be a very nice find for the Capitals. The Caps actually could use more offense, despite the presence of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, so Forsberg will eventually be a key secondary scorer in D.C. " [The Hockey News]

Tom Wilson, taken 16th overall: "In his second OHL campaign, he produced 27 points in 49 games with the Whalers. He also led the club with 141 penalty minutes. Then in the OHL playoffs, he stepped up his game with 13 points, a plus-10 rating and 39 penalty minutes in 13 games... arguably the top power forward prospect available for selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, he has great size and outstanding physical presence... the jury is still out on his scoring upside at the highest level... was rated 15th among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings…. It's been a very good draft for the Capitals (so far). After landing a No. 2 center (Mike Ribeiro) and future secondary scoring (Filip Forsberg), the Caps now get power forward Tom Wilson. He's not ready yet, but Wilson has the type of game Washington needs. Whether he is a top-six winger or bottom-six forward, Wilson will make an impact in D.C.--eventually. " [The Hockey News]

So that's a sample of what folks were thinking about some of the Caps picks over the last nine drafts around the time those selections were made. There have been some hits and misses on the picks and the profiles; that's scouting, and that's drafting. And it's also worth keeping in mind this weekend.

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