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Siegel: Inside the Maple Leafs draft process

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Jonas Siegel
6/27/2013 12:15:05 AM
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At this moment early in the month of June, about three-plus weeks before the draft, Dave Morrison, the Maple Leafs director of amateur scouting, is thumbing through an update on Dominic Toninato, a fifth round pick from the previous summer. A lengthy pivot from the Minnesota high school system, Toninato starred for the Fargo Force of the USHL this past season and will join fellow Leafs product Tony Cameranesi at the University of Minnesota-Duluth next season.

Morrison will helm his eighth draft for the organization this coming Sunday in Newark, a brief day in the spotlight following a year of tireless preparation. Hired in the summer of 2006 by then-general manager John Ferguson Jr., Morrison quietly steers the inner workings of the Toronto's pipeline, a hefty trove of prospects, scouts and information to manage before briefly surfacing once a year in June.

Success in the scouting field is not measured in days, weeks, or months, but typically in years. The rewards of his first draft as the Leafs head scout are only beginning to bloom seven years later. All but one of the seven players selected that day at the 2006 draft in Vancouver have made it to the NHL, four of those six – James Reimer, Nik Kulemin, Leo Komarov, and Korbinian Holzer – suiting up for the Leafs this past season.

"Patience," Morrison says of the job requirements in conversation with TSN.ca earlier this month. "You need to be patient."

Morrison and his scouting staff spend upwards of year (and usually longer with those in their underage year) dissecting the annual horde of draft-eligible prospects. Their prime objective is to obtain as much data as possible on prospective draftees, thus educating and improving their chances for success in the lottery that is the draft. The more information they compile the better they can understand the prospect – not only his talents on the ice, but his personality, willingness to improve, willingness to work, rapport with teammates and coaches – and project his potential as an NHL prospect. "Put it this way," Morrison said, "the longer or the bigger the book the better."

The hunts hinges on one fundamental question.

"The number one criteria," explained Morrison, who previously worked with Toronto general manager Dave Nonis in Vancouver, "is that you think they have NHL potential and they're going to develop into NHL players. That is really the overriding factor when we rank the players and pick them. Whether they're in the CHL or in Minnesota high school or in the Eastern Junior Hockey League in New England, the overriding thing is that we really believe in their potential."

Morrison and a network of more than 13 amateur scouts are scouring for "indicators" that will help to demonstrate whether or not a prospect has a better than average chance to develop into an NHL player. Those indicators range from hockey sense, competitiveness and skating ability to "intestinal fortitude". In Morgan Rielly for example – the fifth overall pick in 2012 – screaming indicators of his potential were seen in his swiftness and sly movements on skates, his hands and "ability to process the game". Top-end prospects of his kind typically project well in a number of categories.
 
Morrison, who began his scouting career under Ron Delorme with the Canucks, recalled the advice his more senior peers once offered, "...'make sure they have at least one skill that you can hang your hat on, that's really, really good and that it's NHL-caliber'," he said of the scouting agenda. "And that might be their shot, it might be their hockey sense, it might be their skating ability, it might be their toughness, but they have to have a particular skill ... you have to believe that they can make the NHL with a certain skill-set."

Projections also include an assessment of the prospect's physical build – whether he'll mature into someone who can physically withstand the 82-game grind and postseason – and mental makeup, determining the quality of his character and whether he has the drive to improve.

Groundwork of this kind is gleaned from the scouts, who conduct full interviews with targeted prospects throughout the season. Questions of character as well as mental makeup and stability can be gauged from these meetings along with any potential red flags that need to be addressed. Months later at the NHL Combine in early June, management teams are granted 15 minutes for yet another face-to-face, but by this time most of the desired questions have already been asked. "You just want to meet them," Morrison said of what amounts to a final job interview, "get a feel for them a little bit. I don't think, obviously, that a 15-minute interview at the Combine is going to give you a 100 per cent indication of who they are and what they are. You get an impression. And I think you have to be careful not to get too high or too low from any type of impression you get whether it's good or bad."

Phil Kessel, selected fifth overall in the 2006 draft, is known to have done poorly in the interview process, but has grown into a top-10 scoring talent nonetheless, albeit for Toronto and not the Boston organization that drafted him. So while of value, character can't necessarily override talent though it does play a considerable role in the evaluation and selection process. The determination often hinges on the culture and environment of the team; an organization with a stable dressing room for example may take the chance on a prospect with supposed "character" issues.

"...one of the important skill-sets is between the ears and that one is a tough one to measure because they can be the best skill players in the world," Morrison opined, "[but] if they don't have the right character and makeup and certain confidence levels it's not going to happen."

As the Leafs scouting leader, Morrison prefers to see those draft-eligible prospects of interest at least three times in person; once early in the season and then twice more after Christmas. By spacing out the live assessments, Morrison believes he's better equipped to measure progress of the prospect or if applicable, regression. "It's not like I'm doing it myself," he said, noting the fieldwork of his scouts. "Those guys are out there in the trenches ... they do a lot of invaluable work for me."

The army of scouts under the Maple Leafs umbrella (like so many others across the league) log tireless hours on the road across a sea of rinks – from the Western League to Europe – collecting first-hand impressions, judgments and game reports of prospective draftees in an online scouting software system known as RinkNet. It's a sifting process that requires meticulous detail and know-how of the various progressions a prospect may go through. Not only are scouts on the lookout for the assets and skills of the individual but his improvement throughout the year. "When I go to one of my area scouts they need to know their area, they need to know those players," Morrison declared. If for instance, a prospect logged time on the power-play in one game and suddenly not the next, Morrison expects his scouts to know or find out why. "My guys are pretty good at that," he said. "They know. And if they don't know they're going to find out right away."

Scouting meetings take place in January during which the organization begins officially ranking the prospects, a list that comprises five-plus rounds worth of players. They initiate the process by ranking within regions (OHL for example) before eventually moving onto a more general breakdown of Europe and North America. It's an engaging and ongoing discussion, with scouts and management alike debating the merits and potential of prospects, some favoured, others not quite so much. "I think there's times I have to break the tie," Morrison said of the rankings. "[But] I'll wait until we've exhausted everyone's opinions and arguments before I'll do that. We have a good group of guys that work really hard and I want to make sure they have the ability to use their voice on players. At some point sometimes you have to make a decision. Sometimes it's just me. Sometimes there's certain scouts that might be going through this process in our meetings, they come to a conclusion themselves and I can see that that's what's happening. It's quite a process actually we go through."

The list evolves throughout the course of the season because as Morrison put it, "a lot of kids are totally flying under the radar and may not become players until January". In some cases, a player will return from the Christmas break and resemble someone much different, perhaps reeking of a previously unseen confidence and potential. "And that's when we have to dig a little deeper and find out perhaps why it took so long and is it for real," he continued.

By the time draft week comes round, the framework for the list is about 98-99 per cent complete. Reconvening as a staff in Newark earlier this week, the Leafs will firm up their rankings in the hours before the draft. They'll run through mock scenarios of how they believe things might play out, make a series of last-minute phone calls to procure any added information and meet with a few of the players, some they haven't had the opportunity to meet with, others they'd like to meet with once more.

Predicting who might be available with the 21st selection is thought to be difficult in what's widely perceived to be a deep crop of prospects though by draft night the organization expects to have a pretty good idea of whom they might be able to land within a certain range of players. In some instances, a player might slide further than was expected as was the case with Matt Finn, the Leafs' second round pick last summer. Finn was projected in many circles, including Toronto, as a first round pick, but slid to the 35th spot. In almost all cases, the Leafs will draft the best available player, straying for need only if the difference between two players is so slim that a margin hardly exists at all.

By the end of seven rounds, a year's worth of work is finally complete, but the process is really only just beginning. From there, it's all about development, a process led in Toronto by director of player development Jim Hughes. Hughes will stay in constant communication with the organization's cache of prospects throughout the year. He and Morrison will touch base at least once a week for updates on the process.

The development curve for each prospect is different. In rare cases – typically at the very top end of a draft – a prospect might be ready to contribute right away. Selected with the fifth overall pick in 2008, Luke Schenn for example, stepped into the NHL as an 18-year-old. Nazem Kadri, selected seventh overall a year later, required considerably more time, just completing his first extended NHL tour in 2013. "It might've took Nazem a little bit longer to get there for various reasons," Morrison observed, "but the fact that he's there and he's becoming the player that we all hoped he would be is the important thing."

Since 2006, Toronto has drafted and developed 12 players into the NHL. They are a group of productive talents – Schenn, Kadri, James Reimer, Carl Gunnarsson and Nik Kulemin among them – but not quite stars. And if there is one failing of the organization's drafting record in the past 20 years it is just that. The Leafs simply haven't had the good fortune of striking gold or hitting the home run in the draft, like Pittsburgh did with Kris Letang in 2005 (62nd overall) or Chicago with Duncan Keith (54th) in 2002. In fact, since 1992 the Leafs have sent only two homegrown players to the All-Star game, Felix Potvin and the now unemployed defenceman Tomas Kaberle. Arguably the best draft pick the club has made in that 20-year time frame went on to fulfill his promise with another team, Tuukka Rask leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final earlier this month.

All of which demonstrates in some manner that for all the work and due diligence the draft is really just an informed roll of the dice. The process isn't perfect and never will be. Had Detroit known that Pavel Datsyuk would be a star would they really have passed on him seven different times – for the likes of Ryan Barnes, Tomek Valtonen, Jake McCracken and Brent Hobday – before finally selecting him with the 171st overall pick in 1998? The best that scouts can do is educate and inform the process as best as possible.

"You just have to keep trying to get better at it," Morrison concluded, "because, again, it's indicators; what did you see in a certain player at this time and now he's turned out, what made him a player? Everything that went into making that player you have to take with you into the next draft. You have to learn from the picks you've made and some of the picks that other teams have made, like why did that guy become the player that he became? You can never stop analyzing it because I think there's always things you can learn."

Rankings have already begun for 2014. Morrison has about 75, maybe 80 prospects already listed to this point. Scouting never stops. And once that final selection for 2013 drops at the Prudential Center on Sunday evening, the year-long process will begin anew.

Burke, Fletcher and Kadri (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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