The past and present of Oilers scouting

By Guy Flaming

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Teaser: Second half of HF’s in depth conversation with Edmonton’s VP of<br /> Hockey Operations delves into the present day scoutin

In today’s NHL it often seems that
change is inevitable.  Players swap
teams faster than traffic changes lanes, the tenures for coaches are shorter
than a child’s attention span and even uniforms seem to be updated with more
regularity than a goose on laxatives. 
Fortunately for the Edmonton Oilers in recent years, change has been a
good thing.

 

The 1990’s were not a decade an Oiler
fan had much to brag about, especially when it came to the NHL Entry
Draft.  The success, or lack thereof,
that the team had in restocking the organization after the glory years of the
1980’s would set the tone for the worst stretch of seasons the club has ever
had. 

 

During the four drafts between 1990 and
1993, the Oilers’ only significant selections were Martin Rucinsky, Kirk Maltby
and Jason Arnott – all of whom had very short careers in the Alberta capital.

 

Even in 1994 when Edmonton had an
incredible 16 selections to make, only one ever developed into an NHL player
(Ryan Smyth).  That was the same year
that the Oilers drafted Jason Bonsignore with their fourth overall selection,
perhaps the single biggest flop in team history.

 

The city of Edmonton hosted the draft
ceremonies in 1995, the year that Glen Sather announced Steve Kelly to be the
team’s first choice above the raucous chants of ‘Doan! Doan! Doan!’ echoing
down from the stands.  Kelly went on to
play in 19 insignificant games for Edmonton while Shane Doan, an Albertan, now
captains the Phoenix Coyotes.

 

Of the 10 first choices the Oilers made
in the decade, only Arnott has become a significant player in the NHL. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
Jani Rita, the last of that group is still
considered a potential impact player but has so far been unable to crack the
Oiler roster in order to make any kind of meaningful impression.

 

As the millennium ended, the team
underwent a significant overhaul in its internal structure. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
Long time GM Glen Sather departed for the
seemingly greener pastures of New York City and Kevin Lowe replaced him in
Edmonton after a year spent behind the bench as head coach.

 

When Sather left, so did a lot of the
old established elements of the organization including scouts
lang=EN-CA style='mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'> Harry Howell and Giles Leger who
decided to join Slats in the Big Apple. style="mso-spacerun: yes">   Chief scout Barry Fraser left the club a
season later and thus the reins of the Oiler scouting staff fell to Kevin
Prendergast. 

 

“There was no problem with that,”
recalled Prendergast talking about the decisions of those who followed Slats to
Manhattan.  “The opportunity was there
for those guys to stay or to go to New York with Glen and a couple of them did
go.  The whole scouting department had
no contracts at the end of that year so it was completely up to them. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
I talked to them and expressed my interest in
having all of them come back to work for us. 
A couple of them left but I’m happy with the guys who did stay here with
us.”

 

Since then, the Oilers have seemingly
been reborn at the draft table.  Of the
players chosen by the Prendergast-led scouting staff in the past three years,
five of them have already dressed for the Oilers. That is a remarkable
improvement over the entire previous decade. 
Not only have some of the players already paid dividends, the talent
pool in the organization is currently deeper than perhaps ever before in Oiler
history.

 

How has such a distinct change happened
in such a short time frame?  What are
the differences for the scouting staff under Kevin Prendergast compared to
Barry Fraser? 

 

“Since I’ve come in I’ve basically tried
to make sure that all of our scouts go over to Europe,” Prendergast stated as a
significant difference between the current and previous philosophy. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
“I want the top 50 players on our list to be
seen by everyone on our staff so that when we have a meeting it’s not just one
or two person’s opinions that they’re voting on.”

 

Under Fraser, the European and North
American scouts virtually worked independently of each other and simply
reported directly back to the boss.

 

“We rarely had any of our scouts from
North America go over to Europe,” confirmed Prendergast.

 

The Oilers of today have a total of 13
scouts, including Prendergast himself who is more often than not in an arena
somewhere on any given night of the week. 
Of the 13, only two are strictly pro scouts (Dave Semenko and Morey
Gare) while the rest are busy criss-crossing the globe in search of future
talent. 

 

“These guys are all really good in their
territories and they know the players really well,” said Prendergast about his
staff.   “They have a good communication
with each other, they’re not afraid to battle it out over their opinions and
then at the end of the day we go out and have a beer and we’re still
friends.  In a lot of other
organizations you can’t talk that way with other scouts.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

 

“Our guys have what I think of as a
respect for each other because we all do things differently as far as how we
compile our lists but for the most part we go into it as a team and that’s how
we come out of it.”

 

The idea of the staff working as a team
runs true with long time Oiler scout Chris McCarthy who also scouted for
Edmonton under the Barry Fraser regime.

 

“It’s like comparing two different forms
of government,” McCarthy outlined. 
“Barry’s was more of a dictatorship and Kevin’s is more democratic. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
Now it’s a more democratic process,
especially if you see a guy a lot more than everybody else. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Everybody gets a fair vote and sometimes we
even disagree with Kevin.”

 

A perfect illustration of the philosophy
of scouting as a team came during the 2001 draft when the Oilers needed to make
their first selection.  The Oilers had
the 13th overall choice and used it to quickly grab Ales Hemsky, a
decision that has paid immediate dividends. 
But it wasn’t as simple a choice as it might appear to have been at the
time.  Prendergast was cautious before
announcing the team’s choice, not because he wasn’t prepared or because he
wasn’t sold on Hemsky, but because it was the first year that the draft was
completely in his hands.  It was
Prendergast who now had the final say on whose name Kevin Lowe would announce
and understandably he wanted to hit a homerun with his first swing. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
To do so, he consulted his staff one last
time at the draft table.

 

“A great example is Hemsky,” recalled
McCarthy.  “Kevin liked him but he never
saw him play a really good game.  There
were a lot of good players available when we picked but Kevin trusted the
staff’s opinion to pick Hemsky because we were all really high on him.”

 

“That’s the pick that really brought us
together as a staff and made us gel.  It
was a great reinforcement of the staff coming together.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

 

“That’s what I love about Kevin, he’s
such a good boss because he listens,” continued McCarthy. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
“Kevin knew right then that he could trust
us and our opinions and the staff knew that our opinions really mattered and that
he would listen to us.”

 

Sources indicate that back in the ‘90’s
it was a decidedly different story.  The
Oilers back then had a drastically smaller staff consisting of just six or
seven scouts who did not have the same feeling of confidence from their
boss.  Fraser ran a tight ship and liked
to sail it his way, which didn’t always create a positive relationship
between himself and his staff.

 

“Barry liked things a little more confined,” said
Prendergast.  “It was a lot smaller
staff and they’d been together for a long time.  They’d won together, and they had their process as for how they
did things but the game has changed.” 

 

“When you’re scouting the amount of players you are
nowadays, you have to have guys in a lot of areas so they can see games where
they are going to be.”

 

From a financial standpoint, having more scouts
travelling less might theoretically save the organization money and that’s
something the Oilers are always interested in doing.

 

Added to the full time staff are also a couple of
part time scouts that chip in with information periodically as well. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
Bill Dandy helps with the QMJHL in the
province where he lives and on the west coast, Bob Brown assists the Oilers
with the BCHL and WHL.  

 

“It’s definitely better now because there’s more
autonomy,” McCarthy explained.  “As long
as we see the players (Prendergast) really doesn’t watch over us. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
There’s a lot of trust there and he lets us
make our own schedules and basically do whatever we want to as long as we see
the players.”

 

Even trying to promote a player who
impressed them could have been problematic for a scout if that player was not
already a favorite of Fraser’s too. 
Every scout out there has a tale of the one that got away and,
ironically, it’s usually about a type of player who seems to be exactly what
the team is missing from its current lineup.

 

“Tomas Kaberle,” said McCarthy right
away when asked about his own personal fish story. 

 

“I went over to Russia for a tournament
that was almost in Siberia.  It was just
Kent (Nilsson) and I because Barry (Fraser) didn’t go that year. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
I saw Kaberle there and I said to Kent ‘this
guy’s a player!’  He had a skinny neck
and he was a stick of a player back then but he had great wheels. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  We were talking and I really got Kent on the
bandwagon once he started watching him too. 
The only other scout there was Anders Hedberg from the Leafs. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  I had Kaberle ranked 25th or 26th
on my overall list that year and I couldn’t even get him listed on our
entire list!  Then Toronto takes him in
the ninth round and the kid is still playing!  I was killing myself!  I
never said anything much about it later but I did say to Kent ‘We screwed up’
and we really did.  Here’s a guy we
could have stolen and Anders got lucky because we couldn’t keep our
mouths shut.”

 

That and also because they couldn’t
convince Fraser to take a leap of faith and listen to his own staff’s opinion
on a player he himself had not seen.

 

“If you go back a few years we really
liked Eric Daze but we didn’t have enough people look at him and he got by us
and into Chicago,” Prendergast revealed about the 1993 draft. style="mso-spacerun: yes">     

 

“Sometimes under Barry, it seemed almost
like pulling teeth just to try and get him to slot one of your guys in
somewhere,” said a scout.  “With Barry
the whole thing was that a draft prospect had to be able to ‘skate like an
Oiler’ and that’s largely still how it is. I can look at a guy and say ‘he
doesn’t skate like an Oiler’ but then Barry would say that ‘if he can’t skate
like an Oiler then he can’t play’.”

 

A prime example can be found by looking
at Edmonton’s fifth choice at the most recent entry draft that took place last
June in Nashville.

 

“Zack Stortini does not skate like an
Oiler but he brought other things to the table that made us take notice of what
else he did have,” recounted McCarthy. 
“He’s tough, he’s a leader and captain of his team at 17 years old. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
He can put the puck into the net every once
in a while, he’ll fight anybody, and he works hard and he’s willing to improve
his skating.  Five or six years ago he
might not even have been on our radar but now we’re more willing to give guys
chances before we cross them off just because they can’t ‘skate like Oilers’.”

 

As previously stated, speed was often so
important to Fraser that at times during the ‘90’s it almost appeared to put
blinders on the staff.  In fact it is
probably the reason behind the worst draft day decision the Oilers have ever
made, selecting Steve Kelly over Shane Doan.

 

“We just thought that looking for a pure skater,
which Steve was, that everything was there,” Prendergast recalled of that
pivotal moment in Oiler history.  “We
thought he was going to be a high-end player and it just didn’t turn out that
way.  It turned out that it was a
mistake but at that time we didn’t feel that it was.

 

“We’d just seen Doan play in the Memorial Cup and he
played exceptionally well and brought a lot to the table,” explained
Prendergast,  “We didn’t feel from the
skating standpoint, which has always been a big thing here, that (Doan) was as
good a skater as Kelly was.

 

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-weight:normal'>Of
all the meetings we’ve had as an Oiler staff since I’ve been here, some 14
years now, I think it’s the one consensus pick we’ve had where everybody agreed
that (Kelly) was the best player available,” revealed Prendergast.

 

“We
had a list that we worked hard at putting together, and on that list, Kelly was
ranked ahead of Doan,” McCarthy agreed.

 

The
hometown crowd certainly had the Alberta born Doan higher on their want
list and let their feelings be heard. 
The chanting of Doan’s name began right after Tampa Bay selected Daymond
Langkow with the fifth pick.  The fans
didn’t let up until Sather spoke the name of Steve Kelly into the microphone
prompting the crowd to switch to expressing their displeasure with a chorus of
boos.

 

I remember the crowd chanting Doan’s name also, we all
heard it,” confessed one scout who was there
style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-weight:normal'> at the
1995 draft. 
style='font-size:10.0pt;font-weight:normal'>One thing held true while Barry was
running the show; it was a tough thing to change his mind once he had the next
pick decided upon.”

 

If
asked to name a draft choice from the ‘90’s that they are most disappointed
with, fans that don’t suggest passing on Shane Doan point towards Jason
Bonsignore.  The failure of Bonsignore
will always be the bruised apple in the Oilers’ ‘Success’ pie chart. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
How could a fourth overall selection have turned
out so bad so quickly?

 

“Jason
Bonsignore was an obvious mistake,” conceded McCarthy bluntly.  “One we
perhaps should have, or would have, foreseen with more background checks on his
character. We found out later that there were commitment issues on his part as
far as dedication to working hard, training, and taking constructive criticism.

 

“There are some things you can’t measure in players
and at that point I don’t think Jason’s heart was into becoming a NHL player
but he was more interested in the money aspect and didn’t want to make the
commitment to being a pro player,” explained Prendergast. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
“It turned out to be a bad pick but at the
time, while we thought that it was a bit of a gamble, we thought that the
upside of him was going to turn over and it didn’t.”

 

At one point it looked like Bonsignore was going to
work out brilliantly but that feeling was as short lived as his career turned
out to be.

 

“On his first shift in the NHL he got a breakaway
and scored a goal so we all thought we were off to the races but he just never
seemed to get any momentum,” Prendergast continued.  “I think the pressure of being the highest pick the Oilers have
ever had wore on him, the press got on him, and he just couldn’t handle it.”
lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;font-weight:normal'>

 

But
what was so attractive about him in the first place?

 

“Jason
was one of the best junior players I have ever seen,” McCarthy stated straight
faced.  “When he was on, I swear to you, he resembled (Mario) Lemieux.”

 

“We
had two picks in the top 6 and we went with the possible homerun and then the
sure thing in Ryan Smyth,” explained the 11-year Oiler scout.  “Sometimes
you do that when you get two picks like that; know you can get one guy, and try
and hit a homerun with the other.  If he turns out, you look like a
genius, and if he doesn’t, at least you learn something from it…but you miss
out on other quality players.  This particular time, it didn’t work
out.  Happens to every team at one time or another.

 

“I
guess in hindsight, I don’t know if he ever really wanted to play
hockey,” concluded McCarthy.  “I think
he was a very immature kid.  We made a mistake, but I know we’ve learned
from it.”

 

The
current staff is tremendously open amongst each other because it’s felt that
communication between the scouts is the key to finding the right players for
the future good of the team.

 

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial'>The
first three rounds are extremely important for us, we have to get guys
who’ll play,” explained McCarthy.  “If
we hit a homerun later, like if Kyle Brodziak (a seventh round pick) ends up
playing, it’s all well and good but we have to be right with our first
picks.  We really need to be sure so we
need to know everything about him. 
Everybody has to feel comfortable with the guys we’re about to take so if
anybody has a story that a guy has a poor lifestyle, he eats fast food every
day or does drugs or something like that, then that all has to come out.”

 

At the last draft held in Nashville, the Oilers made
what has become somewhat of a controversial decision to many Oiler fans. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
Reminiscent of the 1995 draft decision not
to take Shane Doan, in 2003 the Oilers passed over Zach Parise who, although
small, appears to be one of the better prospects in his age group in the
world.  Instead of choosing Parise when
it was their turn to select a player, the Oilers opted to trade their pick to
New Jersey in exchange for the Devils’ first and second round selections. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  New Jersey opted to take Parise and the
Oilers used their two new picks to take Marc-Antoine Pouliot, who they would
have taken ahead of Parise anyway, and Jean-Francois Jacques.

 

It’s a decision that has been criticized by many
people especially after Parise recently led the United States to World Junior
Championship gold and was named the tournament MVP.

 

“Here’s a guy whose character is tremendous,” McCarthy
described talking about Pouliot. 
“Unbelievably terrible team, 36 games in a row they lost and he never
gave up, and he never stopped working the whole year.  He can skate, score, he’s got hands, he’s very cerebral as a
player, the guy has size and he’s got a lot of character… not that Zach Parise didn’t
have any of that.”

 

What Parise doesn’t have though is something that the
Oilers have searched desperately for over the past few seasons.

 

“Size,” stated Prendergast without
hesitation.

 

“We had them neck and neck,” said
Edmonton’s chief scout.  “As a staff we
felt we had a lot of small players and we needed a bigger centermen and there
were things on Pouliot that we saw at the end of the year in a poor situation
where he responded and played very well.”

 

Pouliot did not partake in the World Junior
tournament in Finland because of injuries. 
There was a good chance that the Rimouski forward would have represented
Canada in the competition if not for the abdominal pain that had hampered him
all year. 

 

The differences between the two forwards on draft day according to
Oiler scouts were miniscule but Parise, a Hobey Baker finalist last year as a
freshman, had one knock on him that could not be ignored.  By the end of
the NCAA schedule Parise was visibly tired and rundown despite a light game
load in comparison to that of Pouliot. 
style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial;color:black'>While
Parise played in 39 games for the University of North Dakota, and also in
several games for Team USA, at his size and age, scouts did not expect him to
have tired so quickly.

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial;
color:black'>“What it came down to was that they were very similar players but
there was one difference as far as I was concerned,” summarized McCarthy. style="mso-spacerun: yes">   “I watched (Parise) play a lot at the end
of the year for North Dakota, and when I saw him go into Wisconsin he looked
exhausted.”

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial'>“I
think the fact that he was worn down at 5’10” was a factor and it can be
something that small that determines who you take.  I can’t say 100 percent for sure what was in everyone else’s mind
but I think it was something minute like that which said we want this guy ahead
of that guy and that’s sometimes how you make your list.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial'>Even
so there is no denying that Parise could go on to have a distinguished career
in the NHL, a possibility that McCarthy freely admits.

“I
know the ‘boo birds’ are now seeing through their 20-20 hindsight vision that
we should have selected Parise,” argued McCarthy recently. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
“Zach Parise is a hell of a player, and a
great individual with a lot of character, but I think we got ourselves a great
player in Pouliot; someone the whole staff liked and someone who will answer
the questions of our needs up the middle.  He’ll bring size, hands, grit,
character, determination, and talent to our lineup in the near future.

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial'>“I
love Zack Parise and I wish we could have taken both of them. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  He’s going to play in the NHL but I think
Pouliot’s going to play too.

It is far too early to say whether this scenario will
play out the same way the Doan/Kelly story of 1995 did but the important thing
to remember is that this was a decision made by the scouting staff as a whole
and not just by one or two people at the top of the ladder. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

 

Communication a decade ago was not helped by the fact
that the chief scout and leader of that staff based himself out of a villa in
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.  Not exactly
known as a hot bed for hockey activity, the news that Barry Fraser was residing
south of the U.S. border grabbed everyone’s attention and caught most people
off guard.

 

At first we were all surprised by it, but Barry convinced
Glen he could do it, and it was more of a weird situation than anything else,”
McCarthy recalled.  “I think other teams and fans thought it was a bit
funny that a chief scout for an NHL team could live in Mexico, and still be
a chief scout.  It was a bit different
for us at first, but the only difference was that he had no home games! 
He went on the road for a long time, and then got to go back to paradise.”

 

“I
think other people may have been jealous.”

 

Prendergast,
who opts to live in the Edmonton bedroom community of Sherwood Park instead of
in a cabana, says that the fact his former boss operated from Mexico may have
been a bit distracting internally but not to the overall operation of the team.

 

lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial'>We
just went about our business and everything went through Barry as far as faxes
and things like that,” Prendergast recalled. 
“He knew where everybody was, he had the schedules from training camp as
to where guys were going to start off and that sort of thing so the decision-making
was still there.”

 

“As for Barry coming to Canada from Mexico to watch
games, that was his prerogative, but I don’t think it’s normal in the
business,” the current top scout said. 
“(Fraser) had worked hard over his career and he felt that it was easier
for him to work from that sort of situation and I guess Glen agreed.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

 

“I don’t think it hurt us, but if anything was
hurt by it, it was the communication between the staff,” stated
Prendergast,  “I knew what Barry’s
thought process was though, so a lot of times I communicated through him to the
other scouts as to what we had to do and we just got on with it.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
  lang=EN-CA style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Arial'> style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

 

So in today’s Oilerville with all this freedom for
the scouts to convey their own personal feelings, if there is a deadlock
between them over a certain player or a specific decision, what happens?

 

“We’ll have a vote.” McCarthy clarified. style="mso-spacerun: yes">   

 

“Let’s say that there are eight of us
who are stuck and Kevin’s number 9, he’ll swing a split vote either way. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
If it doesn’t go my way I’ll get mad and
yell and we have some good arguments but it never gets personal because it’s
just business.”

 

“That’s Kevin’s job though and he has the hammer because
it’s his job on the line and in a very simplified way, we just try to
help him out.”

 

One thing about today that can’t be compared
favorably to the past is the fact that Barry Fraser’s Oilers were crowned as
champions.  To his credit, Prendergast
points that fact out immediately when asked to name some of the differences
between his staff and Fraser’s.

 

“Barry had five Stanley Cups,” Prendergast concluded
simply.

 

While the two may have night and day differences
philosophically from one another, Prendergast’s goal is the same as Fraser’s
always was.  The purpose of the game is
to win and that was something Fraser did enough to cover one hand with
rings.  It’s so far something that has
eluded Prendergast’s staff. 

 

In time it may be clear if one of their
approaches was more successful than the other’s but the fact is, even in the
face of so much change, that one definitive goal has constantly remained the
same.  While coaches, players and
sweaters may come and go the desire to hoist the Cup will always remain as the
ultimate objective in a proud organization.

 

 

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