Q&A with Tom Kurvers, Coyotes Director of Player Personnel

By Jeff Dahlia

After a full year under his belt as the Coyotes Director of Player Personnel, Tom Kurvers guided the franchise at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, his second while in the position.

As the game continues to evolve beyond the clutch and grab era and into a more wide-open skilled game, Kurvers and the rest of the Coyotes scouting staff spent last year covering the globe for prospects whose overall effectiveness is tied to a their ability to skate.

A week from removed from the draft, Hockey’s Future caught up with Kurvers as he broke down the franchise’s performance at the draft table. He discussed the team’s eight selections and he explained the club’s desire to move forward as a constant contender, with a wealth of up-and-coming talent in the mix.

HF: How did you feel after running your second draft?

TK: We were pleased with the results. I think we are pleased with the hard work the staff put in over the year. We were able to make tough decisions and use each scout in their particular areas and regions of expertise.

HF: What were the franchise’s main goals or areas of concern heading into Vancouver?

TK: Early in the process, in discussions with Wayne (Gretzky), he was keying in on the players who could skate. That was really our own guiding prerogative, but I don’t think it made us any different from the other 29 teams.

HF: How much easier does it make it for a franchise to develop a good prospect with average or above average skating ability?

TK: When a guy is a good skater, everything happens easier. When it’s almost an afterthought for the real good skaters, they just arrive on time or first, whatever it may be. It just makes their game look easier, and it makes other players better. A good skater doesn’t need other teammates to cover for him. Instead, he’s springing other players into their jobs. It just makes your team more fluid in a game that is hard to predict out there. Especially with the rule changes, the skaters get to move more than they were before. You can see it immediately, and Wayne made it a point early on in the process. As early as the exhibition games, he was making it really clear to the scouting staff and to me, that skating had to be the emphasis.

HF: For your first overall pick, you selected Peter Mueller out of Everett in the WHL. How big was it to land a player of his caliber when he was thought to have gone a couple picks earlier?

TK: We had our list sorted out and we had him there. We were hoping that at least one player would jump into that list and leave one player for us whom we had rated ahead and that is what happened. Out of our top eight, [there was] one player selected higher than where we had him rated, so we were able to get Peter Mueller. He’s a quality player in a draft which had pretty good players at the top end. We were happy to get one of them.

HF: How does Mueller fit into the equation with your former first overall picks in Blake Wheeler and Martin Hanzal?

TK: We look at our current depth chart with our team and we’re trying to address the center ice position, more than any other position on our team. It doesn’t mean it’s going to get done tomorrow because you have to afford them the time and you have to have patience with them to develop properly. We think we have a good chance with these three, for a couple of top-flight centermen to emerge from that group. We obviously expect those three prospects you mentioned to play down the road.

HF: Although this applies to all your prospects developing outside the system right now, how important is it to have your last three first overall selections for example, in top-notch programs, developing in systems with proven coaches?

TK: Just looking at the players you mentioned for example, they are all developing in top-flight programs. When you look at the success and most recently the draft record for the Everett Silvertips in this past draft alone, you see that Kevin (Constantine) is preparing these players for pro careers and teaching them the game the way they will see it at the next level. You hear that from Peter Mueller, and you hear that from the other players who were drafted out of Everett.

No one is ever going to question the methods of Brent Sutter. His track record as a coach and his approach going back to when he was a player is always been first-rate. Then you have Wheeler who’s in a great program at Minnesota, and you even have Chris Summers, who’s headed to another great program in Michigan. That’s a factor. You have to put a little weight on it, and we’re definitely happy where our players are for their development heading into next season.

HF: What was the importance of trading up to take Chris Summers at the 29th spot?

TK: We liked Summers. I don’t know if he was sliding, but we had him higher than 29th. We looked at our team and the assessment of our players, and we were able to make the deal with Detroit. If you look at their draft board, 41 and 47, the two picks that we traded, were their first and second picks of the draft. They made a good move to add a prospect. Instead of getting one prospect, they get two good prospects at those picks. We’re able to get a guy that we expected to go between our pick at eight and our next pick at 41. We didn’t think we’d have a chance to draft Summers. When it got to that point, (GM) Mike (Barnett) made the deal and we were able to get a player whom we had a high opinion of. We think we came out of the draft with two first round picks with great chances to be important players for our team in the future.

HF: One thing that was mentioned about Summers is he’s a big guy but he’s also a good skater. Other than those first two key aspects, what else do you think he’ll be able to bring to the table down the road?

TK: Clearly the skating factor was the push. He was one of the top skaters available in the draft. He showed versatility getting moved to forward for the U.S. NTDP U-18’s. His attitude showed in the way he played, and it was backed up in the interview situation in Toronto. We were impressed when we had the chance to sit and talk with him and then observe his physical testing. We had enough reasons to move up to get him with that pick. That is the reason we made the trade to get Chris Summers.

HF: The team made another trade to move up and get Jonas Ahnelov, a mobile skating, rugged defenseman from Frolunda in Sweden. What prompted the move here and why Ahnelov?

TK: It was very similar to the two second rounders to move up into the first round. We had an extra fourth round pick, and we were looking at the big picture. After we selected Summers, we were looking at two fourth round picks and three fifth round picks. We had those picks coming, but we were going to have to wait a while. He was another player who we had on our board obviously higher than most teams. Our scout Willy Lindstrom really liked this player. The guy is a good skater and that is what we’re looking for. He’s big strong and aggressive and has time in the elite league in Sweden. We think we have a player who we think has a great chance to play. Again, we had him rated higher than the pick number we got him. It’s the same story you’re hearing from a lot of the teams at this stage of the game. They are very pleased with their selections. We made the move to get to the third round to get this player and we’re pleased with that move, and we’re happy to select him.

HF: You used your next pick to select Brett Bennett, a goalie from the U.S. NTDP U-18 team. Bennett was injured for most of the 2005-06 season with a separated left shoulder. This fall, he’ll be moving onto Boston University. Where will he fit in the picture and how much confidence is there that he’ll bounce back?

TK: He fits in because you get a little more time with a college goalie. We selected Pier-Olivier Pelletier last year and he’s playing in Drummondville (QMJHL). So you’re on a little shorter of a term with a junior goalie or any junior player. So our decision time is next year for Pelletier. Then you move him in the system. With Bennett, you have four years to let him develop in a great hockey environment. We think he’s going to develop into a quality player. It allows us to look at our goaltending situation. We have David LeNeveu, Pelletier on the way and the next guy in line on with a little time lapse, would be Bennett right now. We think we have ourselves set up to have goalies coming into the system in intervals, and we think that makes sense.

HF: You headed back across the pond and took Martin Latal form Kladno. The interesting thing is that he also played with Michael Frolik and Jiri Tlusty on the same team. He’s billed as a speedy, crafty forward with much upside. Is that what you saw in him and how well did scout Evzen Slansky do of selling him at this pick?

TK: Evzen actually lives in Kladno and knows him very well. This is a player, and again you’re probably getting sick of hearing this, but we were happy to get him. We had rated a lot higher at the draft, and Martin was actually there because someone told him that he was going very early. He was at the draft, which was somewhat unusual. I think everyone is getting more cautious with bringing young players to the draft, in trying to avoid the tough situations where a player is there and he doesn’t get picked. I think agents are a little more cautious in advising players to attend. But, when we selected him, there he was in the building and so we took that as a positive. Here, we saw a guy that thought he would get drafted, he wants to be a hockey player and he was here from a long way away. We were happy to see his face when we picked him, and he’s made a commitment to play North American hockey.

Again, back to the skating, Latal’s a great skater. So maybe in the past, all 30 teams were taking more chances on size, where now with the game changes, the best skaters available are getting more attention over a bigger guy. He’s got to gain some weight and get stronger, but he’s a strong skater already.

HF: With your last of three fifth round picks, you took Jordan Bendfeld from the Medicine Hat Tigers out of the WHL. How did you come across him and what type of player and defenseman is Jordan?

TK: Our western scout is from Medicine Hat so were getting into the same thing as before, where he was really familiar with Jordan. We had him on our list; he was available at that spot and we were happy to select him at that point. He does have size, he does have character and he’s a player that we think he’ll give himself every chance to become a pro player. Blair Reed, the scout, had a lot of significance in that selection and he was happy we could get him.

HF: With you first of two seventh round picks, the club picked up Chris Frank, a college defenseman out of Western Michigan of the CCHA. For the people who are familiar with his style of play, they know he’s a punishing style of defenseman. Though he’s a bit older than your average pick and a bit off the radar, how much diversity does he add to entire class of defensemen you selected?

TK: His size was an important factor when you make a pick like this. He’s a pretty good skater for guy with his size, and he’s really aggressive. This is a pick where he had some qualities to his game that separated him from everyone else, who was available with size and aggressiveness. We think he’s possibly going to get a charge out of being affiliated with our team, and we hope he could improve just because of that. He’s a determined young man and again, he’s a college player so we get a little extra time with him. We’ll watch him closely and monitor his progress and see whether he can be a part of our team down the road.

HF: To wrap up the draft, you took a crafty center/right winger in Benn Ferriero, who plays for Boston College. What are the expectations of Benn, who’s already had a year of good hockey under him with the Eagles?

TK: We considered him last year about the same time as we did this year, in the later rounds. He was a one player we talked about last year, but we made a different selection. When we watched B.C. this year, our U.S. scout Steve Lyons was aware that he was having a good first year in college. We had plenty looks at him because we already had a good feel for him. We thought because the game had changed and because his strong suit is skating, he’s a little bigger than people expected and he plays the game hard; it doesn’t matter how tall you are. It all projects into the new NHL.

HF: When you look at the overall prospect pool, the franchise is already stocked with some talented defensemen. With eight picks altogether, half of them were defensemen. The argument could be made that you were selecting the best player possible, instead of trying to draft specific needs. Was that strategy applied here and will that explain why you went with more defensemen?

TK: I think we went in with a mix of that. We were aiming for a forward with our first pick. When you count Wheeler and Hanzal over the last three years that is how we used our first pick. Chris Summers was available. If we would have stayed with our 41st and 47th pick we might have selected a forward. There is really no predetermined way we we’re going to go, with the exception of that first pick. Just based on the best on the best players available, forwards were the best after Erik Johnson (STL) went. I think it had more to do with the individual situation. Summers was there, and we really liked him. We made the move, and he happened to be a defenseman. It was the same thing with our selection of Ahnelov. He was available, and we had much higher, so we made the move. Two of our first three picks were on defense, but we had all three of those guys rated high, so that is the way it shook out. It’s not as if we’re committed to any position.

HF: As an organization, do you think you accomplished much of what you set out to do?

TK: I can turn that around the start of the conversation and say, ‘let’s draft guys who can skate.’ I think we did that at all the positions. Summers, Ahnelov, Latal, they’re all good skaters. All the way down to Ferriero. I think we did address that, and I think we kept that at the core of our selection process. I think through the excitement of the game and even during the Stanley Cup Finals this year was based on speed. You’re watching the games and you’re trying to mentally assess in your mind, whether your players can handle that type of pace of a game like that. In my mind, I think we had some players who could and I think we have some players on our roster who might struggle in that situation. To build a team which can win in this new NHL, you need guys who can skate.

HF: Looking back, last year’s draft was the first you ran. This was your second. Was there anything to learn or take with you as you compare the two?

TK: Absolutely. The experience of being at the table and reading and reacting to what is happening from the start to finish, is something you can learn form every time. You better learn because mistakes will be made and you’ll need to take notes of where you got tripped up, and how to react to a similar situation in the future. There was a great deal of learning for me. If I was to assess my performance, I know where I would do things better. You can always learn; it’s like a player playing games. We think we had a good draft. It’s not as if we would take different players in the next draft, it’s more of how you’d react to situations and how to go after trade situations a little different in the future.

It’s exciting and intense. It was a lot different this year because last year, it was like a false front on draft. We had our staff in a meeting room upstairs in the hotel, while the management crew was at the table. It was like a “made for TV” draft. We didn’t have our entire staff around the table. It was significantly normal this year. I was proud to be sitting there with our group of guys. We think we’re getting ourselves lined up to be a better team and to be a steady winner in a competitive environment.

HF: How much does it help to have all that knowledge and experience next to you at the table, most notably a guy like Cliff Fletcher?

TK: If you don’t tap into their experience, then it is all a waste. They all have significant input in all the decisions that were made. Especially in Cliff’s case, he was there to offer perspective on things that could or may happen. He’s like a guiding hand for our group. For a guy who’s been in as many drafts as he’s been in, he stayed tuned-in from pick one to the last pick of the day. He was there all the way, and he was trying to help the process along for all our benefit.

HF: Last year, parts of the hockey operations division were shuffled. After having a year together now, do you feel as if there is a lot more cohesiveness within the unit? Do you think you guys are a bit closer as a management group when it comes to addressing this facet, as well as other aspects of the building a winning team? How does a new ownership group factor into the whole picture?

TK: There is always pressure for every team to win, but we have a new ownership group who is saying things in a different way. There is urgency to what we’re doing here, because we need to put a solid contender on the ice. We can enjoy some of the success we are watching during the spring these past few years. We need to be cohesive because it’s a tough league, and many teams are doing things the right way and some teams aren’t. Wins and losses aren’t always the best indicators. If you have a well-run team, it gives you a competitive advantage or it at least allows you to maintain, and it gives you a chance a win.
It’s a crazy game when you get down to the small things that make the winners and the losers. Our staff, from Wayne on down is committed in getting our team up to the level of the top-end teams and staying there once we arrive.

HF: How much has Wayne’s role changed in this respect, now that he’s come down from the booth and gone behind the bench?

TK: Since Wayne has taken over as coach, he’s learned and paid a lot more attention to the details about what it takes for a hockey team to run form the scouting to the minor league system all the way to prospect development. He’s more tuned into everything. He’s more concerned about how one part interacts with another part. The more he’s involved and the more he knows, the better decisions will be made and the more we’re all following one vision in order to developing our franchise into a constant winner in this league.

HF: Would the latest sign of commitment to systematic harmony at all levels be the inception of Coyotes prospects development camp, which kicks off on July 3?

TK: Yes. What we want is for our prospects to come in, put the sweater on, work together and feel as if they are a part of our group. They may go back to their schools or to their junior teams, but we want them to have the feeling that we’re watching, we’re paying attention and they’re one of us as we move forward. Eddie Mio has done a good job this year creating and maintaining a steady flow of communication with our prospects about what’s happening with our big team. We want them to be in the loop when it comes to decisions, signings and trades. We’re getting them all that information and we’re really trying to make them feel as if they’re a part of the organization from Day 1.

HF: Over the last few years, the franchise has added much depth and much talent. How do you guys feel moving forward?

TK: The pressure is on, always on. It’s always on to win. We improved last season but .500 don’t get it done in this league. Closing out the year a game under .500 leaves you a far ways away from the playoffs. We need to make another significant step forward. We have gone from being very near the bottom of the league to roughly a middle of the pack team, but not quite yet a playoff team. We have to make that step into the playoffs to even consider we’ve made more progress.

HF: How much does it help having a growing cache of talent within the franchise, as you continue to make the push forward?

TK: With the new the CBA and the way business will be handled, I think it’s really important to fill spots on your roster with your own players. It really encourages a financially efficient way of doing business. It also gives you a better opportunity to get to know your players over time. We need to continue to develop our guys, and hope we can bank on their progress and bank on their ability to step into our line-up when that time comes.

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