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COVID-19 means NHL scouts will depend more on video in the coming year

What are the scouting challenges NHL teams will face in the coming season?
Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks. photo: Kallerna / Wikimedia Commons

When the sporting world ground to a halt in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it threw a wrench into the works of NHL scouting. Seasons stopped across multiple leagues, with no further opportunities for more in-person viewing of prospects for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.

The playoffs for leagues the USHL, CHL, and leagues across Europe? Cancelled. The NHL Combine, where teams observe the physical fitness of players and conduct interviews? Cancelled. The World Under-18 Championship, a last chance for the draft’s youngest prospects to make an argument for moving up draft boards? Cancelled. 

The draft itself? Postponed.

There was just one clear benefit for scouting departments: they suddenly had an extra three months to prepare for the draft, which was moved from late June to early October. With no live games to watch, however, they had to turn to video.

“We have a good analytics group here and they do a lot of work with video to help our scouts,” said Jim Benning, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, after the draft. “Aiden Fox and Ryan Biech, they do excellent work for us. We were preparing because at one time they thought there was going to be an early draft, so they did a lot of work breaking down video, sending it to our scouts.

“Then when it wasn’t an early draft, they had more time to pore through players, get to know the players I think as good as any other year when we went to the draft. They did a lot of the heavy lifting.”

It appears that they’re going to need to do some more heavy lifting in the coming season as well. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just going away, which complicates scouting efforts.

Cancelled tournaments and travel restrictions

Some developmental leagues have delayed the start of their season, while several European leagues have started up but with severe limitations on attendance in buildings. Some tournaments have been flat-out cancelled, like the 2020 World Junior A Challenge, which was scheduled for mid-December. That’s a significant event for Junior A prospects, giving scouts an opportunity to see them playing with and against their peers, rather than the lesser competition in their leagues.

Along with the cancellation of that tournament, the selection camps for national teams — another scouting opportunity — won’t be happening.

Another obstacle for teams is travel restrictions. Many countries around have banned travellers from the United States due to their issues with the coronavirus, while the EU has also removed Canada from its “safe list,” leading to several countries barring Canadians. Germany, the Czech Republic, and Finland are among the countries that have banned Canadians from entering the country.

While teams have scouts that live in Europe or Russia to scout those areas, these travel restrictions mean teams may not be able to do crossover scouting in person. Crossover scouting is essential to ensure that a team gets multiple perspectives on a single player.

That means that teams, including the Canucks, will need to lean on video much as they did leading into the 2020 draft. That comes with some significant challenges, but there are also benefits to scouting via video.

Iso-tape and other benefits of video scouting

J.D. Burke, the Editor-in-Chief of Elite Prospects and the host of the Elite Prospects Podcast and Rink Wide on TSN 1040, spent the last year scouting both in person and on video. He estimates that he scouted upwards of 80 games in person, including major events like the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, World Junior A Challenge, the USHL Fall Classic, and the Beanpot.

On video, however, the number of games he scouted while working on the Elite Prospects Draft Guide was in the hundreds and essentially impossible to estimate. That in itself shows one of the advantages of video scouting.

“A lot of that is iso-tape viewings, courtesy of InStat who we work with at Elite Prospects, so we get the capability to see just a player’s isolated shifts,” said Burke. “For example, I’m working on an article right now on Vitaly Kravtsov, so I’m watching a bunch of his iso-tape shifts — individual games cut up by every shift that he played from last year.”

Working with isolated shifts allows a scout to watch multiple games from a single player in a shortened timeframe. That means one scout can get far more viewings on a player than if they travelled to the rink to watch in person. One of the benefits in person, however, is that one scout can see multiple players in one game.

“If you’re watching a WHL player and trying to get a read on them, it’s almost better to watch an entire game,” said Burke. “Let’s take, for example, the Spokane Chiefs: last year you would have had access to Lucas Parik, you would see Adam Beckman at forward, you would see Ty Smith on the blue line, Filip Král, you’d also see Bear Hughes and Jack Finley. Then you take into account who they’re playing against, you’re going to see so many different prospects.

“Compare that to the AJHL and you’re trying to get a read on, for example, Ethan Edwards on the Spruce Grove Saints. Let’s be real, the AJHL isn’t going to produce much in the way of NHL talent in any given draft year. There’s no real point to watching an entire Spruce Grove Saints game. Instead, I can watch Ethan Edwards’ shifts in isolation and get a good read on his game based on that by itself.”

There’s another benefit to video: it can help a scout get more viewings of a player that saw a limited number of games.

Viktor Persson, the Canucks’ 7th-round pick, is a good example of the type of player that may have benefited from the extra attention of video scouting. Persson hasn’t played in any international tournaments in his career and played just 26 games in the SuperElit under-20 league during his draft year due to injuries, limiting the opportunity to see Persson in-person.

“That’s the unfortunate nature of trying to get live viewings,” said Burke. “If I was scouting in Sweden, there’s probably a better than 50% chance I would have missed Persson just by virtue of how much time he missed last season. That’s another area where video can help you, covering ground if a player misses time due to injury or circumstances beyond their control.”

The benefits of video scouting, then, are clear: a scout can watch more games in a shorter timeframe and catch players they might have otherwise missed. There are, however, some significant challenges to scouting by video and distinct benefits to scouting in person.

"In the midst of a crucial play, somebody stands up to hit the concessions."

One key benefit is that a scout’s eyes don’t have to follow the puck the way a camera does. That allows a scout to see things that would happen off-screen in a video.

“One area is their off-the-puck reads,” said Burke. “One player that really benefited from live viewing for us last year was Vasili Ponomaryov. You were able to see the mental calculus as he went on the forecheck in the offensive zone in the World Junior A Challenge. Every one of his forechecking angles, he was doing with the explicit purpose of funnelling traffic towards his support. 

"Even if he wasn’t digging the puck out as the F1, the actions he was taking and the routes he was skating enabled his team to turn the puck over and gain possession in the offensive zone. Little details like that always stick out in a much better way in person.”

There are other, more practical challenges to video. 

“You’ve got things that limit your capacity to evaluate a player like camera angles and a lot of these leagues play video at a very low resolution,” said Burke. “Even someone standing up can affect your view of play. I’ve definitely had that happen where in the midst of a crucial play, all of a sudden somebody stands up to hit the concessions.”

That’s particularly a problem in lower levels — US high school hockey has some difficult-to-watch camera angles at times — but Burke said the CHL can be the most difficult to work with.

“From the price point to the access to the functionality of the actual product, just an absolute nightmare,” he said. 

Beyond those difficulties, there are no secret leagues anymore. NHL teams can access video of any league they want, which means draft steals like Alex Edler, drafted in 2004 from a “glorified beer league” that only the Canucks and Detroit Red Wings had scouted, might be a thing of the past. In the time it takes for a scout to trudge through the snow, uphill both ways, to get to an out-of-the-way rink in the middle of nowhere, that same scout can watch a dozen iso-tape games of the same player.

Cooking with fire

With both live and video viewings of a player having distinct advantages and disadvantages, it’s not likely that pure video scouting will ever replace in-person scouting, even if teams may have to lean a little more heavily on video in the coming year. Ultimately, both have their uses, along with more analytics-based approaches. 

“I think that the teams, the scouts who integrate all parts of this process into one holistic scouting method, they’re the ones that are really cooking with fire,” said Burke. “They’re the ones who are going to perform best in a year where there’s not many opportunities for live viewings.”

All 31 NHL teams — 32 with the Seattle Kraken joining the draft next year — will be facing the same challenges this season. The teams that have already incorporated video into their scouting process might have an advantage. The Canucks are fortunate to have Fox and Biech already doing a lot of work in that area.