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Q&A: What NHL talent evaluators love about Memorial Cup

 

Ahead of the 2019 Memorial Cup presented by Kia, the Canadian Hockey League sat down with four top-level talent evaluators from the National Hockey League.

Among the group was Detroit Red Wings executive vice-president and general manager Ken Holland, New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa, and Chicago Blackhawks vice-president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley, who shared their thoughts on the prestigious tournament and why it’s sure to be circled on the hockey calendar every year.

What value does your organization place on the Memorial Cup?

Ken Holland: I think it’s really valuable for the players. You’re talking about 17- to 19-year-old players. They’re still in the development stages and all the experience they can get in big games on big stages with pressure, those are all important experiences as they are developing as hockey players. From an NHL standpoint, you’re not going to base everything on one tournament, but it’s another opportunity to evaluate a player at a real important tournament.

Jeff Gorton: We always want our players to play at the highest level and in games that mean something, so to watch them in that environment is great from a scouting aspect for how they perform under the gun. When you have your own draft picks there, it’s the same kind of thing. You want them to go as far as they can. You want them to learn how to win, and obviously if they got to the Memorial Cup that means a lot. It means they’ve won something and they’re continuing to play in games that mean something, so it’s all the best for their development.

Michael Futa: Every team wants to embed themselves with a winning culture. When you are able to draft kids who have been involved with a championship team and playing at the highest level of intensity and under events like that as far as the fan coverage, the media coverage, and the pressure that goes with it where in one game you could be gone, we like to see how kids can perform in that challenge. It’s everything on the line, you’re playing for your jersey, your town, and the pride that goes with that. I think it just amps up the level of competitiveness and it’s great to be able to evaluate kids under that.

Mark Kelley: The value of the Memorial Cup, in scouting, can vary from year to year depending upon what teams are participating, where your team is picking in the draft, and which draft-eligible players are participating. But I think there is other value. It’s almost a benchmark because you’re looking at players from three different leagues where a lot of them have already been drafted. It gives you a chance to really measure players against each other and teams and leagues against each other, so there is value.

How can a player’s performance at the Memorial Cup affect his draft value?

Ken Holland: I think it can go a little up. Obviously the longer you play and the more visible you are and the more you’re being watched, you have an opportunity to drive your stock. On one hand, you try to have a level playing field in the evaluation of players, and those players who are eliminated early, how much can they be hurt by their team being eliminated early? But on the flip side, the longer you play, the more you’re being watched and if you play really good in really important games and work your way into the Memorial Cup, it’s certainly going to drive your stock. Certainly, it’s an opportunity for young players to be in a very visible tournament – the best junior teams in the country to sold-out buildings with great emotion and great atmosphere against other really good teams. An NHL team wants that opportunity to evaluate those players on that stage.

Jeff Gorton: If they have a good performance, it’s definitely helping. I think you have to be realistic too. If it’s a draft-eligible player, sometimes you have to remind yourself of their age and the pressure that is on these kids. To hold it against them, I think they’d have to play really bad. To be there, we would have watched them get there and how they performed, and in most cases to get there they probably had to perform well. I think it can hurt, but it’s not going to hurt a lot. I think we’re all realistic and understand the ages of these boys, and we have to remind ourselves of that sometimes, but that’s the reality.

Michael Futa: It’s like the analogy of a blender where you take everything that the kid has done, but it matters. A perfect example is Gabe Vilardi, who took his game to another level at the Memorial Cup. That’s when you’ve got to, especially when you’re a draft-eligible kid because you’re a younger player. To be able to be one of the best players on the ice and to make an impact when the stakes are that high, it’s something that is only going to favour your evaluation. It speaks to your character. Now if he had a bad tournament but he had a 60-goal year, I think you’re going to take that into account as well because any kid can go on a cold streak. Somehow, there is something to the best players being able to find a way to shine in the elite events. When you’re drafting players, that’s what you want to see – how they can make an impact in big games because that’s what you want from them as pros as well.

Mark Kelley: I always try to look at it in a positive because you’re really measuring a body of work over sometimes one year and lots of players watched over two years, so I am a little cautious in taking in one tournament. Certainly if a player stands out at the Memorial Cup, that will garner attention because it’s a competition for a championship. You like to see the players rise to the occasion.

Is there a certain attribute you look for when watching players in this environment?

Ken Holland: You’re looking for the obvious ones: hockey sense, stick skills, skating ability. One of the ingredients that is important in athletics is the ability to perform under pressure. Those people that can perform their very best at the most important time, that’s a gift. That’s something some people have but not a lot of people have, and that’s what makes the great ones great. It’s an opportunity to watch, in a big tournament, who plays.

Jeff Gorton: Just how they handle the pressure of it all. It’s a huge environment. Those kids dream of those opportunities, and dream of getting there, and seeing how they perform under that kind of pressure against the best teams. I think that’s huge for their development, it’s huge for us to watch them in that environment, and it can only help going forward to tap into that experience that they are getting when they go to the Memorial Cup.

Michael Futa: Just the way they conduct themselves in general. There is a certain level of professionalism that you like to see with players, especially with how they control their emotions and discipline. But again, this tournament is really about your team. For a lot of these guys – some of the older players – it’s their last chance to pull on their junior jersey and they want to end it on a high note. The only thing that is unfortunate is you have three champions there, some who leave with a sour taste, and that’s part of it as well because you have to go back and reflect on your regional championship because only one team gets to hoist the grail, and that’s what makes the tournament that special.

Mark Kelley: I don’t think it differs necessarily in this environment. We’re looking for players who fit the NHL model. The game is changing. The game is getting faster. Hockey sense is definitely a characteristic that we look for. I think really what we’re looking for is players who can rise to the occasion of the Memorial Cup. It’s all on the line, and the Memorial Cup is a combination of what they have done all year. There is a lot of pride for the teams and for the leagues.

Is there a specific moment or player that stood out to you from a past Memorial Cup?

Ken Holland: I love the Memorial Cup because your team has to qualify for the playoffs, then you have to win four series, and then you’re going to go to another tournament, and it’s a high-pressure tournament. It’s a wonderful opportunity for those young players to develop as players and to understand what it takes to win. Some players have to produce offense. Some players have to be good defensively. Some are on the penalty kill, some are on the power play, some are in net, some are checkers, and some have to shut down the other team’s best players over a course of a series, and eventually when you work your way to the Memorial Cup, all those experiences are really important and valuable in the development of a young player.

Jeff Gorton: 2000 was a good one because Halifax is a great city. I remember being there and that was a really good (Rimouski) team, and obviously with what (Brad Richards) did, and in his pro career, to see him there you kind of got a little glimpse of how he was going to handle the big stage. It showed that on the big stage he could handle it, and the bigger stage as he kept moving on, so it boded well for his career.

Michael Futa: Brayden Schenn. Obviously you’re proud of your own picks, but him being a Western Canadian kid and seeing him perform at that level out west was really fun to watch. You always watch your own players with a different eye. It’s funny sometimes when they are facing off against each other. It all goes into how they deal with adversity and success that is going to dictate the kind of pro that they are.

Mark Kelley: I think it’s always interesting for me when you look back and you look at the teams who are winning, the style of play that they are playing, and how certain players fit into that style.

What weight do you put on CHL players compared to players from other leagues?

Ken Holland: I think the CHL, certainly in the way the leagues are built in terms of schedule making, they’re probably the closest to an NHL schedule. You have to play tired, and then they go into four best-of-seven series, so it’s certainly a great league in terms of development because the NHL is 82 games and then four best-of-seven series to eventually raise the Stanley Cup. That experience, when you draft young players, when they’re able to go one, two, three rounds, and maybe work their way into the Memorial Cup, it’s great experience for them because it’s hard to advance to the Memorial Cup. It’s hard to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. They are important experiences where somewhere down the road those players are going to fall back on.

Jeff Gorton: I think it’s the closest thing we have to an NHL season. To have to play in that, how hard it is at that age to play that many games, the travel, the competition. The rules are all the same, the rinks are all the same – unlike Europe – so we look at CHL players as probably something we put a lot of added value on.

Michael Futa: I think Don Cherry said it, the teams that we won our Cups with, it was like watching OHL all-star teams. It’s the league where I cut my teeth and I think everybody looks at the CHL as one of the top breeding grounds for young athletes. As far as the development league and the quality of the coaches, the quality of the players who are coming in, the length of the schedule, everything about Canadian junior hockey, they do their best to mirror what it’s like to be a pro. That makes it so much easier to evaluate a kid too when they’re playing in stakes that high and with that caliber of development and coaching. Scouting is an imperfect science but when you get to view the kids in a league like the Canadian Hockey League, it makes our job easier.

Mark Kelley: The CHL is probably the league that mimics the NHL the most as far as the amount of games and the style of play. I think, in that sense, it might give you a better idea in projecting players.

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