LOS ANGELES — With the Los Angeles Kings selecting second overall in the 2020 National Hockey League Draft, there is a lot of anticipation as the team and their fans await the yet-to-be-determined draft day.
Understandably, much of the focus is on who the Kings will select with the second pick in the first round. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in much of the United States and to varying degrees all over the world, like just about everyone and everything else, the hockey world ground to a halt back in March.
Indeed, within a span of a few days, every hockey league—the NHL, minor leagues, major junior in Canada, NCAA, European leagues, youth hockey leagues—it all stopped. No games were being played. Players, coaches and team and league staffs were in limbo for a bit before everyone began the practice of social distancing. For most, that meant working away from their dressing rooms or offices to avoid spreading or contracting COVID-19.
To be sure, the sudden halt had a huge ripple effect throughout the hockey world. But back to the Kings and that second overall pick: how has the pandemic affected the player evaluation work by their amateur scouts that will determine who they will choose in the upcoming draft? After all, nobody is playing games and they can’t travel, so how have they been able to do the necessary work to make the right choices?
For Mark Yanetti, Kings Director of Amateur Scouting, the pandemic has kept him at home, like so many of us.
“I haven’t gone anywhere in about 65 days,” he said. “But I get to spend time with my wife, my family, and I’ve gotten to do a ton of work. In terms of productivity and spending time with my family when I normally wouldn’t be, it’s been good in that way. These last 60-75 days, 55 or more of them would’ve been away from home.”
Yanetti indicated that although no one expected everything that people have had to do, or not do, during the pandemic, his staff wasn’t totally taken by surprise.
“We didn’t think this eventuality would come,” he noted. “But we had thought that there would be some kind of stoppage, so we were pretty well-prepared for this.”
But surprised or not, the pandemic has affected their work.
“It has impacted the work, greatly, of every NHL scouting staff,” said Yanetti. “We’ve missed the playoffs in every league. Some of the European playoffs had started. But for all intents and purposes, NHL scouts missed the playoffs for every league, along with the IIHF World Championships and their World Under-18 championships.”
“Not having the World Under-18 Championships had the most drastic effect, because all the players would have been in one area, and they would have been competing against each other,” added Yanetti. “That’s a really good tournament for evaluation purposes. That said, I think a lot of mistakes are made, good and bad, at that tournament, because you have this high-focus, important tournament that you wait for for the whole year, and all of that happens within a span of ten days.”
“When a player has a really good or a really bad ten days, I think it has too much of an effect on evaluation. A guy could come out of that tournament rated too high and another guy could lose his rating. That happens every year. Some guys earn that. But some don’t. But if you take it the right way, that tournament can give you a lot of information.”
But Yanetti also noted that the pandemic doesn’t have the negative impact that one might expect. Indeed, it’s not all bad.
“Overall, [the pandemic] has affected the ease of scouting,” he said. “But I think it affects player evaluation less than people might want to admit.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “We didn’t get the first pick, so let’s just throw [consensus first round pick Alexis Lafrenière] out of this. Wherever you’re picking, from #2 to #15, or in our case, we were going to pick from #2 to #7. You’re looking at a bunch of guys, and if you just go by NHL Central Scouting’s list, you want to see [Marco] Rossi playing against a playoff team that’s trying to shut him down, or [Cole] Perfetti—you want to see him in a hard series where he has to work hard to get to the middle of the ice, or you want to see [Lucus] Raymond go down to the junior playoffs and have to carry a team. All those things, you want to see. That said, that’s still a smaller percentage of the evaluation process.”
“You’ve got all this work to get to each one of those bullets on each of those guys and now, the only thing remaining for me to see is [one more thing for a given player]. You’ve done 85 to 90 percent of the work. You miss a little, the impact of that depends on where you have a prospect ranked. If you have four players in a four-way, dead heat, then it’s a big deal, because you’re looking for that five or ten percent to separate them. If you had one of those players well ahead of the others, then that ten percent doesn’t matter as much. In any case, we have other tools we can use for evaluation to mitigate that factor. We do lose a certain percentage, but we don’t lose that compared to our competition—everybody is in the same boat. It’s not like other teams are getting information that we aren’t.”
Under normal circumstances, the NHL would hold a draft combine where teams could interview players and watch them perform in fitness testing. But not during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the Kings, losing the combine is actually a mixed bag.
“Fitness testing is a smaller part of the evaluation,” said Yanetti. “For example, [Calgary Flames center] Sam Bennett [the fourth overall pick in 2014] goes through the draft combine—I forget if he did zero pull-ups or one pull-up. Is that good or bad? I’ll bet you that some NHL scouting staffs thought it was a bad thing. But then there were staffs who thought it was a good thing.”
“Some staffs thought, ‘This guy had to know that he was going to have to do pull-ups,” added Yanetti. “Why didn’t he train? Any 17-year-old athlete should be able to do a pull-up.’ That tells you something. But then there are other staffs who thought, ‘This guy is this good at 17 and can’t do a pull-up? Wait until we get our hands on him and get him strong.’ So the combine matters to teams on either side of that equation. It doesn’t matter at all to the teams who disregard it. Either way, you’ve got to read the situation right.”
“The one area it does affect you, especially for [General Manager Rob Blake and Director of Player Personnel Nelson Emerson], is getting the European guys there, face-to-face. [Head European scout] Christian Ruutu speaks to them all, and I speak to the vast majority of them during the season. The ones I can’t fit in during the season, I can usually get at the combine, so it affects you a little bit there.”
As most people have discovered during the pandemic, videoconferencing has its advantages and disadvantages, and while they too are relying heavily on the technology, Kings scouts are certainly seeing both sides of the equation.
“We can do videoconferencing [for player interviews], but there’s something to be said about being in a room with a young player,” Yanetti noted. “You can read his body language and look him in the eye to see how he is reacting.”
“I think that’s a bigger hole for our organization compared to other organizations and I think we’ve done pretty well in our character assessments,” Yanetti added. “So I think it’ll leave a little bit of a hole there. But you’re talking about a couple of little holes, and most of those holes can be plugged if you’re a little innovative, if you’re not afraid of a little extra work and if you have a process in place.”
The Kings scouting and front office staff also face similar challenges with their own videoconference meetings.
“One of the things that I’ve found that the free flow of information, the debate, the rebuttal—the things that are brought up-it’s like one of those commercials where someone is trying to talk while someone else is lagging while their transmission is buffering,” Yanetti observed. “It’s not that drastic. But the process doesn’t work as well as if we were all in the room.”
“All teams are using video,” Yanetti added. “But when you’re watching video in a group setting, it’s easier to discuss and debate what you see when you’re all in a room watching it together. The big, online group meetings just don’t work well for me. That’s been the biggest problem. We have a work-around for it, but it’s not a great solution, and I don’t know that there is one. We’re just doing the best we can.”
Conventional wisdom would seem to be that the COVID-19 pandemic would have virtually no positives for anything or anyone. But that’s not the case for the Kings’ scouting efforts, at least not entirely. In fact, Yanetti indicated that there are some things they’re doing because of the COVID-19 pandemic that could help their scouting under normal circumstances. But for reasons that should be obvious, he was less than forthcoming about what those things are.
“There’s some things that we’ve gotten out of this that, I think, really put us ahead,” he noted. “There’s new ways of thinking. But a lot of it I can’t talk about because I’ll give away something that gives us an advantage, or I’ll find out that we’re not as innovative as we think we are and I’ll look like a moron.”
“I’m sure there are things we’re well ahead of the pack with,” he added. “I’m also sure that there are some things that we’re not outdistancing the pack as much as we think we are. Either way, you can’t win if you talk about your innovation.”
Yanetti was willing to talk about the fact that having extra time has given him and his staff more time to watch video of players.
“What I can say is that everyone has to use video,” he said. “Some use it more, some use it less. Some use it differently. But the fact of the matter is that when you’re at home for 24 hours a day with nothing to do, what you actually have is a lot of time to get into what you’re doing. Not only can you watch video, you can watch a lot of video and really focus on it.”
“With all the extra time you have—we’ve got two or three extra months, and there’s a lot of hours in a day,” he added. “You can work like a dog and still have a pretty good life. After all, I don’t have to travel right now. I don’t have to be away from my family and I can still do all this work, watching a lot of games.”
“We can also meet every day. I meet with our scouts or with Rob or Nelson multiple times a day, and with the extra time and focus, now we’re micro-analyzing players and we’re picking up on things that we didn’t pick up on before. Also, we’re sometimes seeing things in a different light and the discussions are really good. The level of work we’re doing on each prospect—we’re in areas that we’ve never had time to get to before. Hopefully, the result is that we have the same level of knowledge that you have with your first and second round guys with our third and fourth round guys, and so forth. It also forces you to look at the more non-traditional ways of scouting that isn’t just eyes on players.”
Added time to watch video can be an advantage. But there is a down side, as well.
“While you have all this time to analyze players, too much of a good thing can be too much,” Yanetti noted. “You have to balance things out. Looking at the second overall pick, we have two guys really in mind for that pick. We have the time to watch every one of their games this year. That’s about 100 games.”
“But what I’ve found is that, four or five games in, you’re really getting to know that player,” Yanetti added. “Seven or eight games—now you’ve got the player nailed. You’re really detailed and you’re seeing the things that you missed the first few times—you’re seeing things clearly. Nine, ten games—everything you’ve seen in the past—you’re writing the same things because you’ve got the player down. Eleven or twelve—oooohhh…he didn’t do that as well as I wanted. 14 or 15 games—oh my God…this guy makes a mistake every time I watch him.”
So how do they know how much is too much?
“Different people will give you different ‘sweet spots’ for different players,” Yanetti explained. “If you don’t watch a guy enough, you get really enamored with things that don’t matter as much, or you get really negative with things that don’t matter too much. If you watch a guy too much, it’s the same thing—focusing on the things that bother you. So while we have all this time, you don’t watch players 50 times each. That’s counterproductive. That’s the pitfall you have to avoid.”
“We have a sweet spot for views of a player,” Yanetti elaborated. “I don’t want our guys coming to me having watched fewer games [than the sweet spot number] and I don’t want them to watch a lot more games than that. We have a cushion on either side.”
But not all things are equal in player evaluation. As such, the sweet spot number can vary.
“The problem is that if you watch a player in the OHL, he might play 23 minutes,” said Yanetti. “If you watch the same level player in the SHL, he might play nine minutes. If you watch the same level player in the Czech U20 league, he might play 35 minutes. Not all views are created equal. So when I say that we have a sweet spot, it goes deeper than that.”
As Yanetti has indicated, scouting/player evaluation, and, as a result, how they will determine who the Kings will choose with the second overall pick, has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, the impact has been, as one would expect, negative. In other ways, the impact has been somewhat positive—a mixed bag, overall. But now the question turns to: Who will the Kings select with the second overall pick?
As expected, Yanetti declined to answer that question, on the record or off. But there are clues. More on that in Frozen Royalty’s next story, coming soon.
2020 NHL Draft logo is used with permission of the NHL.
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