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The modern age of hockey scouting

By Mike Toth on January 28, 2016

Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Kyriacou is already in his third season scouting for the Ottawa 67's and was recently promoted to director of player development for the OHL club. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star photo)

In modern hockey, high-end prospects such as Connor McDavid are used to having millions of eyeballs tracking their every move. In addition, there are tons of fancy new statistics (Corsi, Fenwick, etc.) to help underline the fact that number 97 is a "generational" player.

But what about back in 1960?

Sure, the old-fashioned eyeball test was the norm. However "Advanced Statistics" (also known as "Analytics") were strictly in the "Back to the Future" file in those days.

Still, when scouting a young lad named Bobby Orr, the eyes didn't lie and there were also a set of numbers (admittedly very basic) to feast your peepers on to underline that what you were seeing was really true. On a frosty winter day in 1960, all the teams in the NHL "Original Six" sent scouts to Gananoque, a small town in Eastern Ontario located on the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Most of the "bird dogs" were there to watch a couple of teenage hot shots on the local Bantam squad. Soon, however, the eyes of the scouts were glued to a skinny, underage 12-year-old defenseman playing for the opposition side from Parry Sound. Bobby Orr was absolutely magical, and the numbers backed it up. Orr, wearing No. 2 at the time, (as opposed to his soon-to-be-famous No. 4) racked up 58 minutes in the 60-minute game – only coming off the ice once to serve a two-minute penalty.

Much has changed since Bobby Orr first took the hockey world by storm. But some things have also stayed the same. Scouts still flock to cold rinks across the country to find the next generation of NHL superstars, and they still use numbers to support what they witness on the ice. 

The major difference is that the numbers have become a lot more sophisticated. Dr. Lynn Lashbrook is the founder and president of "Sports Management Worldwide", a Portland, Oregon-based organization that bills itself as "the global leader in sports business education." SMW offers 25 accredited online courses, and Dr. Lashbrook says "Analytics" has quickly become their most popular class.

"Analytics is changing the world of sports," said the 67-year-old Lashbrook.  "I really believe we're seeing a revolution. Analytics is influencing the decision-making of sports organizations in areas such as staffing, scouting, and talent evaluation."

When it comes to talent evaluation in hockey, International Scouting Services (ISS) is at the head of the class. ISS has teams signed up as clients in each and every major league in North America, including the NHL. Dennis MacInnis is the founder of ISS and serves as the group's director of scouting. MacInnis, a Cape Breton native son who now works out of Kitchener, Ontario, believes Analytics has definitely carved out a place in the modern game. However, he cautions that numbers are only as reliable as the people calculating the data.

"It's tough when you go to a tournament and you've got 16 teams playing on three different ice surfaces," MacInnis pointed out. "A lot of times it's tough enough for a statistician to figure out who picked up an assist on a goal, let alone collecting Fenwick, Corsi or any other kind of puck possession numbers."

The 54-year-old MacInnis primarily uses Analytics in his pre-game preparations, making sure he and his roster of close to 60 scouts have a good handle on all the data connected to the young prospects they monitor around the hockey world. MacInnis, though, believes there's no replacement for the time-honored practice of jumping in your car, sitting in a cold arena and watching a young player strut their stuff.

"You need multiple viewings of a kid to determine their work ethic, compete level and passion for the game. We spend a lot of our time studying a player's body language. Does he get down on himself after he makes a mistake? Does he get upset with his teammates? Does he bang his stick against the boards when his team gives up a goal? Analytics will never replace some of those "old school" factors that are so important in rating the potential of hockey players."

Phil Myre was a long-time professional player; a talented goaltender who played 16 NHL seasons with a number of teams including the Atlanta Flames, Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres. Myre is now the head U.S. scout for ISS, with the 67-year-old Quebec native based out of Farmington Hills, Michigan. Like MacInnis, Myre believes that actually being at a game and "getting a feel for the hockey sense of a player" will always be the number one weapon in a scout's arsenal. However, Myre says that he certainly understands why Advanced Statistics have become a growing trend.

"I was one of the first guys to haul around a computer to keep track of players and I was sort of ahead of my time in that area," said Myre. "So I've always liked numbers, and I like Analytics. NHL teams have become multi-billion dollar enterprises and Analytics is a way to help keep franchises from making expensive mistakes on players. It's worthwhile to have a system that you can use to support your own findings on a player, or that you can use to go back and re-think some of the information you gathered if the data is telling a different story about a guy."

Myre is also a big booster of the ISS "Hockey Tech" program; a computer testing source that measures a player's skating ability. The "Hockey Tech" team sets up its hardware at testing sites and scouting combines, including the recent USHL Prospect's Game in Omaha, Nebraska. It measures a player's skating skills in 14 different categories (such as explosiveness, speed and pivoting) and Myre says it's an invaluable tool.

"One of the most common mistakes a scout can make is misjudging a player's skating ability," admitted Myre. "The fast guys are easy to identify, but sometimes the big guys don't look as if they're moving as quick as they really are. So it's nice to have a system in place that catches some of the things the human eye misses."  

MacInnis, meanwhile, points to another modern invention that he feels will help revolutionize the way the game is scouted, coached and played. The technology involves motion sensors; tiny computer packs placed on players that offer instant data on a variety of on-ice situations – the total distance players skate during a game, exactly how many times a player touches the puck, where each player on both teams was located when the puck enters the net, etc.

"NHL management and coaches are going to love it," enthused MacInnis. "But only about half the players are going to like it. Not to mention any names, but if you're a player who has a reputation for being a "floater", this technology is going to make it pretty tough to hide in the weeds if you're not putting out your best effort."

MacInnis believes motion sensors will be an everyday part of high-level hockey in the next 2-4 years, and they're already being used on a trial basis this season by the Waterloo Warriors of the Canadian University ranks and by a pair of top-end NCAA schools in the United States.

"Once the data starts becoming more prevalent it will have a huge impact on the scouting business and coaches will benefit as well," explained MacInnis. "You could have a monitor on the bench, for instance, which automatically provides information on a number of things that could help you win a hockey game."

Back at the "Sports Management Worldwide" offices in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Lashbrook is excited about modern hockey innovations and their role in breaking down barriers.

"The most exciting part of Analytics is that you don't have to be part of the hockey fraternity to contribute. In the past, you could only be an NHL general manager if you played in the league or knew the right people. That's completely changing and we're seeing an influx of bright and talented people who are able to make their own unique and valuable contributions to making the game better."

Case in point:  19-year-old Jonathan Kyriacou. Already in his third season scouting for the Ottawa 67's, Kyriacou was recently promoted up the ranks and also serves as the director of player development for the legendary OHL club. The new title adds a management component to his resume and, along with studying business and commerce at the University of Toronto, the Pickering, Ontario native is well on his way to his ultimate dream – eventually becoming an NHL general manager.

In the meantime, Kyriacou watches over 300 hockey games a year, primarily in the minor midget division, and has his own ideas about what constitutes a top prospect.

"Versatility is a huge component of what I'm looking for, and that's encompassed by a player's "hockey sense". It's an old adage, but the best players have a way of knowing where the puck is going and getting there before anybody else."

Kyriacou played hockey until "Triple A" bantam before deciding he wanted to embark on another path to contribute to the game he loves. 
And what does he love about the modern game?

Kyriacou is excited by the "hybrid approach" that's being introduced at hockey's top levels.

"We're seeing much less reliance on role players and instead, there's an accent on displaying skill all over the ice. Today's defencemen, for example, have to be able to jump up in the play to provide some offence. But they still have to be solid in their own zone, using their skating skills to push guys to the outside."

With his fresh and creative mind, Kyriacou definitely sees the merits of Analytics and believes their usefulness in helping to grade a player's ability is no longer a question in the minds of most hockey people.  One "advanced stat" that's gaining some traction is something Kyriacou refers to as "Positive Play Percentage". It's an updated version of "plus/minus" that sees a player rewarded with a "plus" for doing something positive with the puck and a "minus" if they do something bad with the biscuit. It's a set of numbers that Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock keeps for his team, and it speaks to what Kyriacou believes is the number one prerequisite for anyone who wants to be involved in today's game.

"You have to go into everything, including Analytics, with an open mind and be receptive to new ideas and concepts. It's the same as scouting a player. You can't write them off too early if they don't catch your eye right away. If you stick with it and watch their progression through the year, there's a chance they might start to grow on you." 

One way for a player to grow on a scout is displaying excellent character on the ice.  It's a personality trait that scouts such as Kyriacou, MacInnis and Myre are constantly on the lookout for. And believe it or not, even "number crunchers" such as Lashbrook realize that it's difficult for Analytics to measure a player's heart in the never-ending quest to find talent and put together great teams.

"Team chemistry is something that's immeasurable and the unpredictable nature of sports is why people love it so much," Lashbrook stressed.  "You never want to get over-zealous and carried away with Analytics and turn it into a Democrat vs. Republican-type situation.

But I think we're seeing things merging nicely. We've been able to break down some traditional walls and find places to use modern information to help enhance the game, not take away from it."

Amen to that, says MacInnis.

"If you could just crunch a bunch of numbers to come up with a good hockey player, I would have saved myself from a lot of bad coffee and cold rinks over the years," he laughed. "But if you want to keep up with the times and stay ahead of the development curve, new ideas definitely have a place in the game."

The bottom line for any scout, of course, is to find outstanding players.

So if old-fashioned "bird dogging" gets mixed in with some "new-age" ideas to help uncover the next Connor McDavid or Bobby Orr? Well, that's a positive equation that everybody connected to the game can understand.   

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By Mike Toth| January 28, 2016
Categories:  Major Junior|Junior

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