LOS ANGELES — Last year, the National Hockey League regular season was abruptly halted, like virtually everything else, by the COVID-19 pandemic, following games played on March 11, 2020, when the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Ottawa Senators, 3-2, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
As reported in this space on July 3, 2020, prior to the 2020 NHL Draft, it wasn’t just the NHL that halted play. Indeed, sports around the world ground to a screeching halt not long after.
As detailed in that story, with no hockey being played anywhere, amateur scouting staffs for NHL teams faced the challenge of completing their prospect evaluation work without being able to scout players in person after that dreadful date.
Although amateur staffs ended up having more time to devote to prospects projected to be selected in lower rounds last season, they were unable to evaluate them in critical situations, such as late season playoff pushes, or the higher level of competition in post-season play—they had to rely on incomplete information.
But if you think amateur scouts had major obstacles to overcome last year, as the saying goes, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
To be sure, the obstacles that amateur scouts for all NHL teams faced in 2020-21 were both unique and formidable, again, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shortened seasons, shut down entire seasons, prevented scouts from accessing some arenas, and more. Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti recently spoke with Frozen Royalty about those obstacles and how the Kings overcame or worked around them.
“This year was very similar to March 11 on, last year,” he said. “We had been putting things like [increased reliance on video in scouting] for a couple of years now, going in this type of direction, but not this drastically. Some of the framework that we scouted by during last year’s pandemic, and continuing into this year, we had already been doing, and slowly introducing into our scouting framework. It just got accelerated by about one-and-a-half to two years.”
“So this year was a lot like the end of last year, with the exception that some leagues were playing,” he added. “The hardest part of this year has been some leagues playing, and some not, or some leagues playing and then shutting down, like the Quebec league playing for a week and then shutting down.”
Yannetti stressed that not having the same amount or quality of information about players on an even and equal basis across the board was the biggest obstacle to their work.
“It’s the ‘uneven-ness,’” he lamented. “I found last year’s scouting to be easy. All the leagues were playing, and then, within three weeks, they were all done. So it wasn’t uneven. It wasn’t like the [United States Hockey League] played 70 percent more games than the Western Hockey League did, compared to the Ontario Hockey League, which played no games. The hardest thing for our scouting staff this year has been the uneven [nature of the available information].”
Indeed, the Kings [and the other NHL teams] were unable to collect the same kind, quality, or amount of information about prospective draft targets.
“This year was measurably harder than last year, when we got 80 to 90 percent of the season done for everybody,” Yannetti observed. “At worst, everyone got an 80 percent snapshot of every single player. If you want to throw names out there, you’ve got a couple of guys from the OHL, like Wyatt Johnston and Brett Harrison, who only played in the World Junior Championships (Under-18). Then you’ve got some of the USHL guys, like Guillaume Richard, who only played a full season in the USHL, but played in the World Junior Championship (Under-18).”
“Then you’ve got guys in Sweden and Finland who played half a season and then their league shut down,” Yannetti added. “They didn’t play any hockey until the World Junior Championship, while others didn’t make the World Junior Championship.”
The uneven nature of the information on players raised serious question regarding how to evaluate them.
“How do you rate an OHL guy against a USHL guy against a WHL guy,” Yannetti said. “You’ve got 50 games in the USHL, 20 games in the WHL, and you’ve zero games in the OHL. Some OHL guys played in Europe, which is a big, hard adjustment to make, or worse, they’re not playing. Now you’re going on outdated information.”
“Uneven information is the hardest to deal with,” Yannetti added. “If everybody didn’t play, or if everybody played 20 games, or 50 games, it would’ve been a lot easier to scout, evaluate and compare.”
Regardless of the obstacles all NHL amateur scouting staffs faced, the work had to get done, one way or the other. But the solutions and workarounds were definitely not ideal. In fact, they often created challenges of their own.
“We found a bunch of ways to get around [the uneven nature of the available information],” Yannetti noted. “But none of the ways we got around it were perfect, and a lot of the ways we got around it, you’re still not dealing with current information.”
“If you look at the draft [where the majority of players selected are 18 years old], and the changes that happen [to an 18-year-old player by the time he turns 19], the changes that happen between 16 and 17 or 16 and 18, or whatever that sweet spot age might be before they’re drafted, are even [greater],” Yannetti added. “So draft-year-minus-one to draft-year is a much more drastic development year than draft year to draft-year-plus-one.”
“The good news is that we’re all in the same boat. For example, last year, I didn’t think missing the World Junior Championships was a big deal because everybody missed it. The Red Wings don’t have an advantage over us. The Senators don’t have an advantage over us. The Anaheim Ducks don’t have an advantage over us, and it’s the same this year. Unless a team didn’t have its scouts traveling—some didn’t have them traveling at all—they would be at a bigger disadvantage. But in terms of what we were allowed to do, we were not at a disadvantage.”
Both last year and this season, all scouting staffs relied heavily on video for evaluating players. But in addition to not being able to watch some players live and in person, relying on video also has drawbacks.
“When you’re watching video, or watching games on television, not all television games are equal,” said Yannetti. “For example, standard definition versus high definition—if you watching a standard definition feed from a camcorder in the corner of a rink, or a feed closer to ice level, or a feed that cuts off parts of the rink, and can’t see into one of the corners, that’s problematic.”
“In some cases, you’re watching an overhead feed, and you can see the whole play develop—that’s wonderful,” added Yannetti. “But then you lose out on some of the finer points. You miss some of the competitive elements. You miss some of the speed-based elements. You miss some of the crispness of the plays.”
“Where you get the benefits of an overhead feed, like a coaches feed
in the NHL, which I love to watch, you can see the plays develop. You can see how smart a guy is. You can see him recognize, or not recognize, his options. You can see the play that should be made versus the play is being made. That’s awesome. But then you lose the skating and the competitiveness, or you lose some of the general speed of the game that you get from being closer. With a feed closer to the ice, now you see how fast and mobile they are. Now you see the competitiveness. Now you see when a guy is hitting, or when a guy is pulling up. You see the body language when they’re going in for a 50/50 puck. You can see a guy explode into a hole. But now, you miss how a play developed. Did he see the option? Or was that option closed off? I don’t know because I only saw half of the play.”
For obvious reasons, Yannetti stressed that they had to watch as many different video feeds for every player that they could. But he also noted that in some cases, video feeds were limited, both in quantity and in quality. But what could they do?
“Sometimes you just see the results of a play,” Yannetti explained. “Or, if the camera doesn’t move fast enough, you see a defenseman make a great pass that doesn’t connect to the forward. When the camera pans ahead to the forward, did he miss an easy pass, or was it two feet behind him?”
“You are limited in certain aspects when you’re using video to [evaluate players],” Yannetti elaborated. “But you make do with what you can get.”
In our next story based on an exclusive interview with Yannetti, we’ll look at some of the top prospects in the 2021 NHL Draft class, and find out some of his thoughts (not all, for reasons that should be obvious) about them. Stay tuned.
LEAD IMAGE courtesy of the National Hockey League. Used with permission.
- 2021 LA Kings Draft Preview: A Look At Potential First Round Picks with LA Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti
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