Scouting is the NHL’s great “dark art”, a behind-the-scenes endeavor that acts as the lifeline for each team’s hockey operations department. Despite its critical role, however, scouts are generally kept far from the limelight. In most markets, fans would be hard-pressed to name more than one or two members of their favorite team’s scouting staff. Instead, draft evaluations typically are laid at the feet of the general manager, or assistant general manager.
Despite that lack of attention, however, scouting departments are responsible for selecting the players who ultimately hit the ice for their team, so getting a peek inside that secretive world is a chance to get some rare insight into how the NHL actually works. Shane Malloy’s The Art of Scouting: How The Hockey Experts Really Watch The Game and Decide Who Makes It (Amazon affiliate link), a book which hit stores earlier this year, offers a glimpse into that world for the curious hockey fan.
Unfortunately, it’s not much more than a glimpse. While this book does serve as a good introduction to NHL scouting for fans who may be new to the sport, if you already know your WCHA from your QMJHL and the SEL from the SM-liiga, then you may be disappointed here.
Input from hockey scouts, but only rare insight
The strength, and at times the weakness, of Malloy’s book is the input he received from a number of scouts with teams around the NHL. Where genuine insight is offered, this adds a tone of authority and depth, and the collection of amusing anecdotes from scouts’ life on the road serves as a great introduction to this insular industry, which mixes camaraderie with competitiveness on a daily basis.
At other times, however, Malloy just sprinkles the quotes on too thickly, taking a simple fact and belaboring it with industry-insider quotes which simply aren’t necessary. Take, for example, this quote from Detroit Red Wings scout Bruce Haralson:
“The biggest difference between amateur and pro scouting is that in amateur you are dealing with kids aged 16 to 20 as opposed to watching the pro ranks, who would be primarily age 20 and up.”
Wow, deep stuff there. Why not get a quote telling us how wide a rink is, or how many players are on a particular team?
I can understand that Malloy had a difficult task here, as no team is going to offer up much of their “secret sauce”, speaking plainly about their approach to scouting and how it might give their particular team a competitive edge. Filling out the text with superfluous quotes doesn’t help at all, however.
I’d be remiss not to address a particular bit that troubled me, a short passage on statistical analysis. The real interesting questions would seem to involve the difficulties of applying stats from various leagues, and understanding which aspects of a player’s performance might translate to the NHL level, as opposed to others. Instead, we get stuff about “clutch” goal scoring which is closer to alchemy instead of chemistry, to use a scientific analogy.
A good look at positional scouting
The book’s best parts come when breaking down some of the specific elements which scouts look at when evaluating forwards vs. defensemen vs. goaltenders, getting into a bit of detail about which parts of a player’s game are considered especially valuable by a scout, and which are able to be addressed during the development process after a given player is drafted. This process can also get complicated by mitigating factors, and scouts often have to dig for as much information as they can about a given player’s coaching directives before taking what they see at face value. This, from the late E.J. McGuire, who headed up NHL Central Scouting:
“A scout at a game has the challenge of trying to interpret the system the coach is asking a player to play. In other words, prospects might be under orders to shoot first and look for the pass later. We scouts are not privy to that and when we are evaluating we can fall into a trap. For example, if a prospect has his head down and is looking at the goal while his two linemates were a little more open, does that make him selfish? In a black-and-white world, the answer would be yes. But in a world that takes into account some instruction from a coach between periods or before the game, it is clearly no!”
It is in those sections where Malloy is able to tease out a bit more interesting information from his array of insiders, and where someone new to this aspect of the game will find the most value.
So if you’ve already followed your favorite team through a few NHL Entry Drafts, and listened to what the scouts have said about the prospects they’ve selected, you probably won’t find much new material in here. For hockey fans who haven’t really looked at this side of the game yet, however, The Art of Scouting is a very readable and well-organized introduction to the world of scouting, and it will shed light on what is essentially each team’s R&D department.
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