Players' size no longer the deciding factor for scouts
For years, when the boys from the Central Scouting Service gathered in the big boardroom at league headquarters in Toronto, the familiar phrase could be heard over and over as they debated the merits of young prospects:
"Good junior player, but he won't be a good NHL player."
Inevitably, the commentary reflected on a player's size.
But the conversations are starting to head in a little different direction. Now, when the service's scouts discuss a hulking 17-year-old defensemen, they ask "Can he play in the NHL today?" said E.J. McGuire, the head of Central Scouting.
A season ago, no one knew exactly what the product was going to look like on the ice. Now, everyone knows -- and it has or is creating a paradigm shift in thinking in organizations from top to bottom. And by bottom we don't mean least important, but the beginning for teams, at the scouting level, a tool that might become the single most important element of a team's long-term success in this new era.
Scouts, whether individual team scouts or those hired by the CSS, used to see size of frame, imagine it filling out and grade that player on that basis. When they saw a small frame that had little chance to fill out, or little chance to battle through the hooking, holding and obstruction that was endemic in the NHL for most of the last decade, that player was marginalized, even forgotten.
Now, in the space of a few months, those same scouts have had to rethink their attitudes about young players, asking themselves not just what they might become physically, but expanding that to ask, "What kind of hockey player is this? What kinds of skills does he have and how might those skills be improved?"
Scouts, like almost everyone connected to the game, must adapt to looking at their job through a fresh set of lenses.
"Just as the defenseman has to relinquish old habits," so, too, does the scout, McGuire said. "We have to check ourselves."
The service is changing, too, in terms of its staffing and how it ferrets out players that teams might want to investigate themselves. Players are seen multiple times by different scouts, thanks to a complex scheduling system McGuire oversees involving his 12 full-time scouts and 12 part-time "bird dogs."
These part-timers, real estate agents or stock brokers in their "real" lives, are crucial parts of the scouting puzzle as they might indicate to teams whether or not they need to commit resources to go to places like Salmon Arm, British Columbia, to see a prospect.
"It's kind of like an early-warning system," McGuire said.
The CSS's full-time staff also has evolved. "It's no longer a halfway house for out-of-work NHLers," McGuire said.
Teams use the CSS lists and rankings, produced three times during the regular season, to help them prepare for the entry draft in June. But they also rely on their own staffs, and most teams are increasing expenditures on scouting. Teams are also turning over their scouting staffs if they don't have success.
Rick Dudley, as good a judge of hockey talent as there is, recently was promoted to assistant general manager by Chicago GM Dale Tallon. It's a bold move by Tallon, whose job might well be hanging by a string by next spring. But Dudley has helped the Blackhawks assemble a fine stable of young talent, which will be crucial if the beleaguered Original Six franchise is to get back to respectability.
"No question size and strength were prerequisites," in the old days, Dudley said recently. Everything else fell into place after those qualities were established. "If the player was small, he had to be blindingly fast."
Make no mistake, if you're Joe Thornton or Jaromir Jagr, big and skilled, you're still the prototypical NHL star. That won't change. But now there is plenty of room on the stage for quick, talented players of smaller stature, whether it's Derek Roy (5-foot-9, 186 pounds) in Buffalo or Brian Gionta (5-foot-7, 175 pounds) in New Jersey.
Among the most skilled was Sidney Crosby, a 5-foot-11, 193-pound center who was seen as the face of the new NHL when he was drafted first overall after the lockout.
"I feel that I came into the league at the right time," Crosby told reporters this week. "For me to be able to come [in when] the rules were changing, obviously for an offensive player the rules are better for those players. I feel fortunate to come in when I did."
Where the issue gets dicey is on the blue line, where size will continue to be a premium, but now that size has to come along with smarts and good foot speed and durability, which makes the job of evaluating young defensemen exponentially more difficult.
If you don't have the foot speed to get into position and make a play with the puck, you're either going to turn the puck over and give the opposition a scoring chance or take a penalty. Neither option is appealing to coaches and GMs.
"You've got to be able to get back into position quickly or you're going to be under duress the whole game," Dudley said. "Defense has now become an incredibly demanding position in terms of grit. You can't yell at your partner now because he didn't hold up the winger coming on the forecheck."
Dudley said there is now a school of thought for defensemen that if they can't cleanly beat an opponent to the puck in their own zone, they're better to let him get there a fraction of a second early so the defenseman legally can gain position and try and squeeze him out of the play. That's the kind of thought process that will mark successful defenders.
St. Louis defenseman Jay McKee told ESPN.com during last spring's playoffs how he'd adjusted the focus of his game to blocking shots and passes as opposed to trying to wrestle players down in front of the goal, which led to a plethora of penalties early in the season.
In baseball, people talk of five-tool players as being the benchmark for stardom. Now, NHL teams will be looking for the three-tool hockey player, the one that can play five-on-five, kill penalties and produce on the power play.
It's why a player such as Marian Hossa might be one of the most important players in the league, while his teammate in Atlanta, Ilya Kovalchuk, now will carry certain professional baggage unless he can change his one-dimensional game.
Said Eliot: "You really have to start looking at bang for your buck."
Take Marc Savard. He is being paid as a No. 1 player in Boston, but he's not a No. 1 player five-on-five or killing penalties. Are the Bruins going to get full value for him? History suggests they will not.
Because everything is shot through two lenses, the hockey lens and the economic lens, players are sometimes viewed differently by different teams.
The Sabres would have loved to have J.P. Dumont and his 30-goal potential back in the lineup, but his $2.9 million arbitration award was too much. Now, he's in Nashville while the Sabres hope to replicate last season's success using lesser-known, cheaper players.
Teams that would have overpaid for veteran players in the past because they were considered more valuable than raw prospects have done a complete about-face, Eliot pointed out. That's why players such as Tie Domi, Tom Fitzgerald, Brian Savage and others have retired because teams can't afford to bring on those "character" players. That's why Peter Bondra, who had 21 goals last season in Atlanta, including eight on the power play, is still without work on the eve of the regular season. So is Jason Allison, who had 60 points in 66 games for Toronto.
If there is a mantra for the new NHL, then, it might well be younger, faster, cheaper.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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