Ways thinking, approaches can evolve in amateur scouting

When answering a question about Darryl Sutter last Friday, Dean Lombardi offered a “preamble,” which served as a multidimensional state of the union address in which he delved into the organization’s way of thinking, the unpaved road towards learning from success, and the ability to collectively face a new set of challenges while avoiding the complacency associated with having remained at or near the top of the league’s competitive hierarchy.

In using an example to articulate the way he’d like to see some internal lines of thought to evolve, he referenced meetings involving the team’s amateur scouts, which concluded last week, as “seven days of hell” and “around the clock work.” It’s a bit hyperbolic, yes, but during those meetings, which happened to quickly follow the team’s playoff exit and overlapped with the team’s players and coaches meetings, the established means of thinking were challenged, and, as Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti said, high expectations were set.

“There were times the meetings weren’t comfortable because it’s hard to look in the mirror and critique yourself and be honest, you know what I mean? When you have to look at your flaws and honestly assess them and recognize them, I don’t think that’s a natural thing to do. But if you can do it, I think it’s one of the most productive things you can do,” Yannetti said. “So in terms of the meetings – and I echo Dean’s sentiments on this – I think we got away from some of the things that made us successful. I don’t think we worked any less hard. Again, I can’t speak to the other 29 teams’ work ethic, but I’ve been around quite a while now through playing and scouting and hockey ops, and I can’t see how a group of individuals could work harder than the staff on the Kings. I watch what our development staff does, I watch what our scouts do, I watch what the coaching staff does, I watch what our strength [coaches], our players do. The work ethic has not changed from Day 1.”

By and large, the amateur scouting staff has done a very good job in pinpointing talent that could ultimately be groomed for competitive roles by the development staff and ultimately utilized by the coaches. 10 players who won two Stanley Cups with the Kings were drafted and developed by the club.

There is also more of a contemporary example in which eight of 10 players selected by Los Angeles in 2009 and four of five players selected in 2010 have gone on to play in the NHL. Both of the team’s 2009 seventh round picks – Jordan Nolan and Nic Dowd – have played in the league. On the other hand, if one were to line up picks chronologically, the player most recently drafted by the Kings to go on to play in the league is Tanner Pearson, and he was taken in the first round in 2012.

The specifics may not have been the focal point during the meetings, but rather an overarching way of thinking and evaluating.

“We weren’t as innovative,” Yannetti said. “We didn’t grow through our work like we did the first four or five years. Like, our first four or five years, it was ‘work,’ but there was an energy and an intellectual growth, and if you want to say ‘outside-the-box’ thinking, or idea-oriented work. A ‘think tank,’ if you will. I think there was that energy of innovation that we were striving for, and a lot of things didn’t work, but the constant flow of ideas and the new way to build a mousetrap, or how to make what we do even one-to-five percent better, I think we got off-track in terms of that, and I told you in the beginning when we were talking about those traditional beliefs and being a problem, I think we fell victim to that. We created a template, and we didn’t evolve. Again, the work was there, but the evolution, that was missing. We just short of lost vision of how the work manifested itself when we were really going. When we were really firing on all cylinders, there was a creative energy attached to the work, and it was funny because Dean has a very good way of holding people accountable. I will say that – there is no question that he gets peoples’ attention.”

Speaking lucidly and with a fervently tinged speech cadence as he strove to find ways to both articulate and harness a formula that is easy to sense when it is present but a challenge to define when it departs, Yannetti described the way those in the meetings strove to discriminately evaluate set-in ways of thinking while enduring a bout of pointed criticism, though it was often honest and helpful.

“Sometimes when you hold yourself accountable and you’re called out and you have this critique-oriented forum and you really have people that you trust and respect – again, honesty – you’re able to look at everything honestly. You’re able to sit there and be able to take criticism because you know that the person next to you respects you and values you,” he said. “While I said it was not comfortable to say the least, it’s still safe, and it’s still an environment where your peers know that whether they’re getting called on the carpet, whether they’re getting critiqued, whether they’re getting praised, the people in that room respect them for the job they do and their hockey knowledge, their hockey acumen, their work ethic. Again, you never want to have to get to that stage, but it’s a natural state of things. You take it, and then you have a mini-revolution, if you will. I think that week went a long, long way. The creative things that were coming out of those meetings, and the ideas and the energy seemed akin to those first three years when we were just trying to innovate. It was good. It was very good.”

The Kings own picks in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh round of the 2016 NHL Draft, which will be held in Buffalo, New York, from June 24-25. In our conversation, Yannetti also answered questions specifically related to this year’s draft class.

Mark Yannetti, on middle-round “hits,” such as Alec Martinez, Dwight King and Nick Shore, and whether the team pinpoints players who could slot into a certain role, or “swings for the fences” with high-ceiling, “homerun” picks in the middle rounds of a draft in which the team owns only four picks:
We’re looking for both, so let me qualify what I say. It depends. A homerun in the seventh round is a guy who plays. Let’s be realistic. You look at some scenarios, some trends, if you want to get into the analytics side of hockey, if you assign numeric characteristics to certain attributes you can come out with a type of player that tends to make it from those rounds. So, ‘swinging for the fences,’ the homerun, it depends. So much goes into that. If there’s a homerun pick in the fourth round, there’s probably a reason the player’s still available in the fourth round. Now we’ve all seen the guys that end up coming out of nowhere and developing, and if you want a clichéd thing, like a Cinderella story or whatever. That does happen. But for the most part, if you’re getting a guy with those tools to be a homerun pick, right or wrong there’s a perceived deficiency. Now we all bring our biases and sometimes one-dimensional thinking into these areas, and when I say ‘we all,’ I mean ‘every scout,’ not just the ‘LA Kings.’ A guy’s ‘small.’ Or a guy has off-ice issues, or whatever. You have all those things, which tend to move a guy down the list, but it really depends. Like, if you think his upside is a second line center, and then you have a guy whose upside is a third line wing, then you have to bring in the probabilities. You have to weigh things against each other. Like, if we think this guy has a 70% to be a ninth forward, and this guy’s got a 15% to be a fifth forward, well, I think you have to go with the percentages there. Now, if you’re talking about a 15% chance to be a second forward, like an F2, or a 45% to be an F10, then now I think you start swinging. So you bring percentages and level of player in there. Like Tyler Toffoli – he was a second round pick for us, but he was a guy that we coveted, and you could tell that we coveted him by just moving up two spots in the draft to take him and giving up an asset to move up two spots. There was a guy we thought had F4, F5 potential. He had deficiencies in terms of his skating was perceived to be problematic, and maybe his off-ice workouts were at that age, but he’s a 17-year-old kid. So we looked at the risk-reward and saw a guy we thought could be a higher second line, if not even better than a second line player, which he’s now looking to be, versus a more safer player. Well, in that case, we swung. Then you look at Dwight King or Alec Martinez, each one of those has an attribute that you really covet, although maybe they don’t have the highest potential – although you’re starting to see both guys moving up the lineup. Then you bring the percentages – ‘we think he has this percentage to be a D5,’ or whatever. And then other things go into it, too – the intangibles, the character. You talk to a guy like that, and get a feel for a player, and that helps a lot, too.

Yannetti, on any commonalities on players who far outperform their draft slot:
I think the commonality is the scout, and not in a good way, sometimes. I think we have to learn better – learn to think more objectively, learn to think more intelligently, analytically – all of these things. Bring everything into it. You see traditions or trends or the perception. For so long, and this is before my time, but for so long, the perception was Europeans couldn’t play in the NHL. I mean, we’re going back, way, way, way back. I mean, think of how many players were missed out on because the scouting cognoscenti held that belief as a tenet. And then small players, or American players, or college players. Insert demographic here, and you have almost a fixed mode of thinking, and it takes a long time to get out of that fixed mode of thinking. You get into different things. It’s hard. Character – and I think the word ‘character’ is often thrown around, and I think the definitions of character are often wrong. This gets into a slippery slope, but guys that burn to win, guys who want to win, guys who want to be the best they can be, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want them taking your daughter to the prom. Guys who are single-minded in terms of their purpose tend to outperform guys who aren’t, and the hardest thing is finding that, and learning which is which. You see it through all sports. You see it in the NFL, Major League Baseball, basketball, hockey. You see it. You pick a character guy, and it’s such a fluid thing, and it’s such a hard-to-quantify thing. You can’t put a number on it. You can’t put a strictly objective, analytic number on character. It’s impossible. And guys who you think are selfish in the way they compete, that selfish compete might get them single-minded to the next level, and guys who are selfless, well, sometimes they don’t do everything they take, they put others before them. It’s really hard. If you could nail the character aspect a hundred percent of the time, I think you’d see batting averages go way up, way up. Especially with a 17-year-old kid, you may nail his character correctly at 17, and it’s not the same character. I mean, we all know. I am not the same person I was at 25, and at 25, I certainly wasn’t the person I was at 17, and I think very, very few people in the world are the same person from 17-to-30. Some of those drastic changes in your personality, people always say ‘the light bulb goes off,’ or whatever clichéd thing they want to ascribe to it, but it’s a fluid characteristic of people. You learn, you experience things. I think we try to do the best we can do, but it’s so inexact. It’s an inexact science. I don’t even think it’s a science.

Yannetti, on whether the scouting approach or putting together the draft list evolves when the team owns four selections:
The process changes slightly. Not so much because we only have four picks, but because of where we’re picking. I guess we could change a little bit in terms of where we’re picking, depending on who makes the Stanley Cup, but we have a good idea of where we’re picking in the second round within two or three picks. Given history, if you just want to use basic supply and demand, it has pretty defined value to move from, let’s say, 48 or 50, to the first round. It’s cost prohibitive, to say the least, and I don’t know if we have the assets without moving serious pieces on our team, so the likelihood of being able to move up into that first round is next to impossible. So in terms of the process changing, if you know you’re not picking in the first 30 picks, you can eliminate some players. Still, you have to be careful not to just arbitrarily eliminate some guys, but you have a pretty good handle on guys that you have no chance to get, so it doesn’t make sense to waste a lot of resources and time on players that you have no chance to get. You still have to know ‘em, but in terms of micro-analyzing certain guys, that part of the process just probably eliminates itself.

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