Circumventing the Salary Cap: Investing in Scouting

Scouts at work! (Photo by Matthew Manor/Getty Images)

When the current CBA was implemented in 2005 it severely restricted the amount of money each team could spend on player salaries - the on-ice talent. However, teams were still free to spend as much as they want in all other aspects of hockey operations. In an era when developing your own young and inexpensive talent is at a premium, investing in scouting and player development just makes sense. These concerns will no doubt continue when a new CBA is signed. Increasing the size of a scouting department does increase its cost, but scouting and developing prospects is a significantly more affordable alternative to trades and free agency to fill holes in a given lineup. While quantity does not equal quality, more information, input, and opinions from the scouting department generally help GMs make better decisions.

But do teams take full advantage of this area of unrestricted finances? What kind of personnel make up scouting departments in the NHL and how many scouts are employed by each team? Admittedly, this is not an exhaustive study, more of a cursory first look at scouting in the NHL. The scouting numbers for each team are based on current website information and this information is not always complete or readily available. While scouts fall into general categories, not every team lists their scouts in these categories (such as pro scouts, European scouts, amateur scouts etc.). The Edmonton Oilers are the only team which doesn't list its scouting department on its website and the Tampa Bay Lightning only list their head scouts and scouting directors. Consequently, both the Oilers and the Lightning won't be examined (I'm making the assumption that Tampa employs more than 4 scouts and that Edmonton actually has some, but without the information, it's hard to examine their departments).

The following chart is a breakdown of scouting departments across the league. The "head" category includes personnel with titles of director, chief, and head scout. "Pro" includes both North American pro scouts and European pro scouts (there are only 3 European pro scouts employed by NHL clubs). "Euro" includes all personnel listed as European scouts or European amateur scouts. "Amateur" includes those listed as amateur scouts and listed as amateur scouts with specific North American scouting areas. "Misc" includes personnel listed as simply "scouts," as well as statistical analysts and video scouts.

TEAM
HEAD
PRO
EURO
AMATEUR
MISC
TOTAL
Anaheim Ducks 2
0
0
0
13
15
Boston Bruins 3
1
1
7
1
13
Buffalo Sabres 2
2
0
11
1
16
Calgary Flames 1
2
0
0
8
11
Carolina Hurricanes 2
2
0
4
1
9
Chicago Blackhawks 4
4
1
7
1
17
Colorado Avalanche 2
3
0
7
0
12
Columbus Blue Jackets 3
3
0
3
1
10
Dallas Stars 5
2
0
11
0
18
Detroit Red Wings 3
3
5
3
0
14
Florida Panthers 2
3
2
5
0
12
Los Angeles Kings 4
2
2
6
2
16
Minnesota Wild 2
2
2
8
0
14
Montreal Canadiens 1
2
2
9
0
14
Nashville Predators 1
4
4
3
0
12
New Jersey Devils 2
1
0
17
0
20
New York Islanders 2
0
0
7
0
9
New York Rangers 3
3
3
7
0
16
Ottawa Senators 1
3
2
7
0
13
Philadelphia Flyers 1
3
0
13
0
17
Phoenix Coyotes 2
2
1
8
1
14
Pittsburgh Penguins 5
2
0
7
0
14
San Jose Sharks 2
0
0
10
0
12
St. Louis Blues 3
4
0
11
0
18
Toronto Maple Leafs 1
4
5
13
0
23
Vancouver Canucks 3
5
0
12
0
20
Washington Capitals 3
3
3
8
0
17
Winnipeg Jets 4
4
3
7
0
18







What does this chart show? On average, NHL teams employ 14.8 scouts. Which teams employ the least amount of scouts? Well, the teams you might expect. The New York Islanders employ 9 scouts in total. Perhaps this is why they offered the Blue Jackets all of their picks at the NHL Draft last month. The Islanders employ a Director of Pro Scouting, a Chief European Scout, and 7 men with the general label "scout". Hopefully a couple of those scouts are pro scouts, or else the Islanders do not scout their opposition. The Carolina Hurricanes also employ just 9 scouts and only 5 scouts for evaluating amateur talent (4 amateur scouts and 1 Director of Amateur Scouting). Why did the Columbus Blue Jackets decline the Islanders offer? Perhaps Scott Howson declined because he fired 4 scouts, including his former assistant director of amateur scouting John Williams, the day after the NHL Draft, which suggests he did not value their input. A few weeks later the timing of that decision is still inexplicable. The Jackets have just 3 amateur scouts on staff (in addition to 2 Directors of Amateur Scouting and 1 Amateur Video Scout - the only such title in the league). The Calgary Flames round-out the bottom 4, with just 11 scouts, which might be symptomatic of the organization's resistance to rebuilding.

The threadbare scouting departments of the Islanders and Blue Jackets are particularly disturbing. The Islanders have picked in the top-5 in each of the last 4 drafts. They have picked in the top-10 in 6 of the last 7 drafts. In 2009 and 2010 the Isles had 2 first-round picks. In short, this is an organization that has clearly been rebuilding for several years and relying on the draft to improve their team, yet has failed to develop their scouting department over that same time. With the exception of the season the Blue Jackets made the playoffs (2009), Columbus has picked in the top-10 of the NHL Draft every season of its existence (the Jackets traded their 8th overall pick to the Flyers in 2011 as part of the Jeff Carter trade). Yet despite this drafting advantage, the Blue Jackets have failed to develop a scouting advantage, and as such, will probably continue to enjoy their drafting advantage.

Sometimes quality is better than quantity. The Detroit Red Wings are a perennial power-house and their staff is widely acknowledged as successful. The Wings have only 14 scouts, just below the league average. While the Wings have only 3 amateur scouts and 1 Director of Amateur Scouting, they've made their mark in Europe and employ 5 European Scouts and 1 Director of European Scouting, the most of any team. The Ottawa Senators began the 2011-12 season with the #2 ranked prospects by the folks at hockeysfuture.com and with the defending Calder Cup championship AHL team in Bingo. 2 days ago, Ottawa's prospects were ranked 5th overall by Corey Pronman, from Hockey Prospectus, who specifically noted that the Sens prospect depth rivals that of both the Florida Panthers and the New York Islanders (the teams which occupy top spot on Pronman's list). Yet the Senators employ only 13 scouts, slightly below league average.

Sometimes quantity helps produce quality. Toronto leads the pack with 23 scouts under contract. While Brian Burke's rebuild has been met with mixed reviews, he has spent a lot of time, energy, and money revamping Toronto's hockey operations. As a result, the Leafs employ 4 pro scouts, among the most in the NHL, and a whopping 18 amateur scouts, including 5 based in Europe. The Marlies Calder Cup Finals appearance this spring was the fruit of Dave Morrison and his scouting department's labour. Toronto and Vancouver are examples of big-market clubs using their financial clout to build their hockey operations. But the New Jersey Devils are a financially troubled team who employ 20 scouts, 17 of them as general amateur scouts. They are the reigning Eastern Conference champions, a feat achieved with many home-grown players. The St. Louis Blues were surprise division winners in 2011-12, and they rank among the top-5 NHL teams with 18 scouts employed. The Blues get around financial limitations by having only 11 full-time scouts and employ the other 7 scouts part-time.

Most teams list video personnel as part of their coaching staffs. Of the 28 teams examined, 23 teams - including the Senators - employ a video coach. Only 5 teams employ video analysts as part of their scouting departments. The Boston Bruins have a Video Analyst listed in their scouting department but do not have a video coach. The Carolina Hurricanes employ both a video coach and a video scout. The Los Angeles Kings have a Video Coordinator listed under their coaches as well as 2 Video Technicians listed in their scouting department. The Phoenix Coyotes have both a Video Coach and a Video Coordinator among their scouting staff. The Columbus Blue Jackets employ a Video Assistant Coach as well as both a Director of Video Scouting and an Amateur Video Scout. These 5 teams suggest that rather than performing the same duties, video scouts and video coaches are being used in different capacities. With the availability of NHL games in the post-lockout world, in addition to the many amateur-level games available, video scouting is just one more way to gain information about the potential of players.

For those who don't think advanced statistics play a significant role in the game, examining scouting departments suggests otherwise. While advanced statistics fans like Canucks GM Mike Gillis don't employ anyone who holds a statistics or analytics title within the team, 4 NHL clubs currently do. Graham Beamish is the Hockey Analytics Assistant for the Sabres, Adam Gill is the Hockey Analytics/Video Analyst for the Blackhawks, Mark Janko is the Director of Hockey Analytics and Administration for the Stars and Michael Peterson is the Statistical Analyst for the Lightning. Positions within NHL organizations are always changing. Just as position-specific coaching is a relatively recent development (goaltending coaches are one such example), statistical analysts are a new development in scouting. And just as goalie coaches now proliferate the league, in a few years so might statistical analysts. This kind of diversity is good for an organization as it increases the perspectives a GM can draw on when making a decision.

Ultimately, this is just an initial examination of scouting in the NHL. More information about each scouting department is needed and more variables need to be examined to get a fuller appreciation of the scouting practices of NHL teams. There is not a simple equation for scouting success revealed here. Larger scouting departments can produce organizational strength in terms of prospects but teams who employ the league average amount of scouts can also be highly success. Still, it's probably not advisable to hover around the league minimum. While there are numerous reasons why teams like the Blue Jackets and Islanders have resided near the league basement for several years, their barebones scouting departments are at least part of the problem. In years past, scouting departments were often composed of former players, and while many undoubtedly provided useful analysis, scouting departments are becoming more diverse. Many former players still become scouts, but they are now being joined by video scouts and statistical analysts. Not every aspect of the game can be quantified by advanced statistics and the value of each player is not always readily apparent through observation alone. As more NHL clubs diversify the roles and personnel in scouting departments to meet the needs of the new NHL (in which the Draft is of paramount importance), investment in scouting must be a priority for each club.

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