Pandemic has changed hockey scouting landscape: Evaluators at all levels making short, long-term adjustments due to COVID-19

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Mark Seidel’s workspace certainly has a different look these days.

For years, the longtime hockey scout spent both evenings and weekends in arenas with varying levels of climate control, leaned against a metal railing, eyes trained on the on-ice action. He would occasionally pause to jot notes on select skaters, or to greet fellow evaluators and other hockey people as they walk by. Depending on the time of year, he might talk trade rumours with OHL executives, or sing the praises of a skater he believed was being underrated by NHL brass.

“It’s a community,” said Seidel, a Sudbury resident who operates the independent North American Central Scouting and works for the OHL’s Barrie Colts as a regional scout. “You don’t see your co-workers or people you work alongside for six, eight months, you look forward to it. That camaraderie in the scouting community, we miss it, and we miss being able to go to games.

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“A big part of this job is information gathering, especially when you’re an independent scouting service like we are. And when you don’t have that ability to spend time and socialize, to dig in, to go down and talk to a trainer about a player before a game, that’s hard, as well.”

Mark Seidel

Instead of perching at one end of a cavernous rink, Seidel now hunkers down in front of a computer screen to digest hours of video from professional, junior and minor leagues around the globe, or to take part in Zoom calls with colleagues. That, or he’s on the phone, canvassing hockey folks for information on a given player’s on-ice work ethic, off-ice training habits and personality.

Like almost everything else in the sporting world, scouting has changed drastically since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in mid-March. Almost no competitive hockey has been played in the country, and very little around the world, since that time. Even the NHL itself had a long pause before adopting its bubble format for a play-in tournament and post-season — a model that, while suitable for leagues with TV deals, may not work at many at lower levels.

OHL teams, including the Sudbury Wolves, were forced to cancel the tail end of their regular season, and then the playoffs, depriving scouts such as Seidel from seeing NHL draft-eligible prospects in the most competitive, most meaningful action of the year — effectively freezing their draft stock in place and, perhaps, providing an unclear picture of their long-term potential.

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“The lack of being able to see players at the end of the year is going to throw a real wrench into this year’s draft,” said Seidel, whose company, NACS, sells a draft guide to pro teams each year. “I think we’ll look back in years down the road and see some players who turned out a lot better than where they were picked and, conversely, some players who were picked high who didn’t turn out, just because we didn’t get a chance to evaluate them right through to the end of the hockey season.”

Normally held in late June, the NHL Entry Draft is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9-10.

“The biggest thing, when you’re evaluating players, is you want to see a progression upwards,” Seidel said. “Ideally, you want to see kids who are constantly getting better. We got shut down in late February, early March, so you don’t know if that progression would have continued.”

Sudbury Wolves centreman Quinton Byfield and defenceman Jack Thompson may both have benefitted from a longer season, Seidel said.

Byfield, whom many rate as the No. 2 pick behind Alexis Lafreniere of the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic, may have made a stronger case for first-overall status with a dominant playoff, overcoming lukewarm reviews of his performance at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

“I fully expected Quinton to have a good playoff and to really show that he could step up and carry that team,” Seidel said. “How far that team was able to go, we will never know, but not having that playoff did hurt him to a certain extent, because it didn’t allow him to showcase the full arsenal that he’s got. If he goes to Los Angeles (second overall) or Ottawa (third), I think either team is going to be lucky to get him and will look back and realize they may have gotten a break by not having that playoff. If he had carried them deep, he might be in the discussion a lot more for first overall, let alone second or third.”

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Thompson had a red-hot start to 2019-20, with 14 points in his first 10 games, then hit a rough patch near the midway mark of the season, before coming on strong at both ends of the rink down the stretch.

“He started off on fire and really took that step from last year, as a rookie, to start this year, and had people and scouts really excited,” Seidel said. “Then, admittedly, he went through a six-, eight-week stretch where he struggled, which isn’t uncommon, and then he started to come on again. As a scout and an evaluator, talking to teams, we all were saying OK, once the playoffs start, the intensity picks up, the physical side of the game picks up, is he going to be the player we saw at the beginning of the year, or the player we saw who struggled in the middle part? You’re missing that part of the equation, so he’s a good example of a kid who was hurt by it. To his credit, though, he finished up what was left of the year pretty strong, and I think that bodes well for him. I’m a big fan of his and I think he’s a very smart player, and I think teams will have seen enough at the beginning and at the end to justify not being too worried about that middle part of the season. He still should be a very good prospect.”

While he still prefers live, in-person viewings, Seidel said he believes the lockdown has made him more adept at scouting by video, and sees streaming becoming a more useful, more widely utilized tool, even after COVID-19.

“It has given me more of an appreciation for it,” he said. “The level of video has gotten a lot better over the years, and I think it’s a tool we probably under-utilized, quite frankly. But you get a chance to realize what you have and I think going forward, we’re going to utilize more of it. I’m still a big believer in boots on the ground and eyes in the rink, seeing live games and live players, but I think this has helped us realize there are some secondary sources to use that we can do a better job with, and I think we will in the future.”

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While the NHL scouting season was unfortunately cut short, drafting at the junior level was relatively unaffected by the pandemic, at least in 2019-20. Most minor hockey teams had finished their seasons, or had very nearly done so, leaving Wolves general manager Rob Papineau and head scout Mike Taylor feeling quite confident with their team’s list once the OHL Priority Selection rolled around in April.

“Rob set us up on Microsoft Teams and we had more meetings as a staff, prior to the draft, than we normally would,” said Taylor, reached at his home in Guelph this week. “We would all meet around seven, eight o’clock, after work, and go over things, so I think we were really prepared for the draft. A lot of us were working from home at that point and we were in the same boat, so we had more time to spend preparing for it.

“Normally, for first-round pick possibilities, teams meet face to face with the player and their parents, so that part of it didn’t happen, but you could still talk to a possible prospect on the phone, on a Zoom call or Microsoft Teams, use that resource and still get a good idea of what the player is all about.”

Mike Taylor

It was much the same situation on draft day, and a far cry from the usual war room setup at Sudbury Community Arena, but Taylor and his staff were still pleased with the results. The Wolves selected a highly skilled offensive talent in David Goyette with their first-round choice, 11th overall, then added another high-end forward in Kocha Delic, whom many rated as a top-10 talent, in the second round, 28th overall.

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Sudbury’s early picks also included goal-scoring forward Evan Konyen in the fourth round, 71st overall, and two-way defenceman Nolan Collins in the fifth, 88th overall.

“It was a bit different,” Taylor said. “You’re not able to have as much interaction with your guys, I guess you could say. Draft day, for a scout, it’s almost like Christmas, because all of your work throughout the year comes to fruition, the excitement of watching these kids through the year and making your selections, being around everyone and talking, that interaction was a little bit different. But we were all online, following along, and we had input from all the guys and took the best player available at that particular time.”

That input will be important as ever, and maybe more so, in the months to come. While minor hockey organizations have now released return-to-play frameworks ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, most of the on-ice action will revolved around training, with nothing resembling competitive hockey until late in the calendar year — and that will be in an ideal public health situation, with steady declines in the number of COVID cases and blessings from provincial and regional authorities.

“I’m trying to gather information from online, as far as the high-end kids from last year, at the bantam level,” Taylor said. “I have already started to work on what you might call a finder’s list, to find out where the high-end teams have been coming from, where in the province or even in the U.S., just to have an idea where we need to concentrate our efforts, in terms of watching players, and how we’re going to go about that.

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“As far as I understand, there isn’t going to be any tournaments, and that’s a huge information resource. For the Whitby Silver Stick in November, they basically bring in all of the top minor midget teams in the province, as well as the U.S., and from that tournament, you kind of have an idea of who the kids are that you need to target from that point onward, especially at the elite level, the top two or three rounds. We have the area guys and they all come in to Whitby, we usually have a meeting then and then it’s OK, we have so many kids in the Toronto area, so many kids in Ottawa, et cetera, and then I can concentrate my efforts on going to watch games with our area guy and narrow things down as we get closer to the draft.”

That may not be possible, however, with capacity restrictions at local arenas. It’s possible, for example, that only one OHL scout will be allowed per team, per rink.

“I’m not too sure on how we’re going to do that yet, but I think each team in the league will probably have to rely more upon the viewings of your area guys, who will have to know their area, and then stuff like HockeyTV or, in the U.S., there’s a program called LiveBarn, where you can watch games online. It’s not always the greatest, in terms of being able to see the whole, entire game, and you do miss things on video, but that might be a resource we use more than we normally would.”

Like Seidel, Taylor believes that online resources and video will become even more important for scouts in years to come, especially as quality improves and more features are added.

“At the pro level, they’re already moving towards their scouts not just doing games live, but being expected to watch video,” Taylor said. “They’ll be expected to use that tool, as well.”

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson