Team philosophy through drafting: Yannetti shares impressions on speed, skill, more

As the Stanley Cup has made reservations to attend Thursday night’s Game 5, the NHL Draft comes more squarely into focus, and to kick off LAKI’s draft preparation, it’s time to check in with Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti.

There are a number of topics here, many of which are only tangentially related to the 2018 crop of NHL prospects. There are, rather, interesting recollections about pre-draft meetings with Kyle Clifford, Drew Doughty and Wayne Simmonds, discussions over different first round tiers and pools of talent, the multi-layered nuances of the league-wide thrust towards speed and skill, the process of building relationships with young players, and, of course, the reformation of a club blueprint towards drafting and development as influenced by Rob Blake’s philosophy. More than any draft guide, it’s an interesting appraisal of the state of the game and of amateur scouting.

“I think the best thing you can do, and I think Rob did that early, is you can create a philosophy, because once you have that, now you can create a blueprint on how to achieve and how to make that philosophy a reality. And he did,” Yannetti said. “He gave us a very clear direction he wanted the team to go in. And then it becomes very easy to fulfill that mission statement. If he had just said, ‘well, I like this, and I like that, and we’re looking for speed, and we’re looking for…,’ well, it becomes very hard to fulfill an abstract category. His philosophy, the style he wants things, the way he wants things to be played, now it becomes a lot easier because we know exactly the direction, we know exactly how to fulfill it.”

The Kings, like all teams, are in the process of finalizing their draft list, which, per Yannetti, takes place through three larger scouting meetings – the “first final” meetings in April, the “second final” in May, and at then the “final final” meetings at the draft, which provides a thorough process for review and editing before it is ultimately set at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 21.

“That way, every single area that’s addressed, guys have up until the draft to reconcile them. You do something in a meeting, and there’s an emotional component to it, always. There’s always an emotional component to scouting. And then you sit there, and you say, ‘geez, I think I let my emotion get the best of me,’ and, ‘gee, I really tried to drive this guy up the list,’ or, negatively, ‘maybe we were a little harsh.’ You have three separate chances to digest what happened at the meetings. We all do that. Every time we can reevaluate something, certainly every time we relish I relish the chance to go back over all of it and say, ‘OK, this is an area that maybe we need to look again.’

“If it hasn’t been done by then, speak now or forever hold your piece. It’s over.’”

More on drafting, scouting, and team culture…

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Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti, on the first full year under Rob Blake, and whether the scouting ethos, focus or message towards the scouts has evolved:
His management style is obviously different than Dean’s is. I mean, there’s no question there. They’re two completely different human beings. Their approach is different but very similar to what we did early on when we were trying to build a team. Rob has his philosophy, and it’s not dissimilar to what you see happening in the NHL. Again, I think people try to make it about a whole lot more than it is. But you see an evolution to speed, to skill, all that. Rob’s philosophy certainly falls in line with that. That being said, I think there was a feeling that ‘we didn’t value it,’ because you’ve got the big, heavy LA Kings, the teams that won the Cup. The teams that won the Cup were incredibly skilled, incredibly fast. Yeah, they played a big, heavy, dominant possession-style game, but nonetheless, take a look up and down those rosters and tell me if they lack skill. Part of our problem was we went … four years out of seven without a first round pick, two years in a row without a first round pick. But then if you take a look back, we traded Brayden Schenn, who was a high-skill player, a first round pick. We had traded [Wayne] Simmonds, who was a high pick in terms of the second round. So, if you start going back and looking, it’s a whole lot easier to find skill high in the draft than it is low in the draft.

I think with Rob, it’s an evolution of what the initial philosophy is, and there’s certain areas and certain differences where he has more focus, where he’d be less concerned. Maybe he’d be less concerned about size in this area and more concerned about speed in this area. But in terms of an ‘ethos,’ it’s more he’s created his own philosophy. It falls in line with a lot of the things that we have done, and then there’s areas of focus. And then there are a couple of areas where it’s very different, and it’s our job to employ his thinking. It’s our job to adapt in some of the subtleties ways that he’s seeing. It’s not unlike starting fresh the first time. It’s maybe not quite ‘starting fresh.’ I think ‘revolution’ would be too strong of a word. I think it’s his ‘evolution.’ Certainly, we wanted to get a little faster, and certainly we wanted to get a little more skilled, but now we have the opportunity to. It’s also his philosophy of giving us the ammunition to put some of his thoughts and put some of his philosophies in place. It would’ve been very easy for him to trade a first round pick this year. We’re in a playoff battle. From January on, we’re in that neck-and-neck battle where you’re two points in, you’re two points out. Again, that’s one place where you see a difference is his unwillingness to move a first round pick and give us a chance to insert and draft some of those areas that he finds important.

Yannetti, on how an emphasis on speed and skill affects a scout’s game-night checklist and player and data evaluation:
Everybody wants to sound really smart. Everybody wants to sound like they’ve reinvented the wheel and they’ve discovered something that no one’s ever thought of. Like, the ‘New NHL.’ It’s so cyclical. It’s like every three-to-five years there’s a new NHL. Everybody spent time trying to be the Detroit Red Wings. Everybody spent time trying to be the New Jersey Devils. Then everybody spent time trying to be the LA Kings. Now everybody’s spending time trying to be Chicago, Pittsburgh. Again, it’s not that anything’s created different. You’ve always wanted that speed, you’ve always wanted that skill. So, when we go in and look, speed jumps of the page. You walk into a rink in warm-up and the first thing you notice is if a guy’s big, or if a guy’s fast. It’s just obvious. You see a guy who’s 6-foot-5, you don’t need to scout it. You know he’s big. You can almost look in the program, and then you see a guy flying around the rink in warm-up, flying around the rink the very first shift of the game, you know he’s fast. I think those traits are pretty obvious, and I think they’ve been obvious … I don’t think you have to be a scout to tell me who’s fast.

There are a whole lot of subtleties that go along with that speed. If a guy gets to the wrong place really fast, is that a benefit? If a guy is one step slower but he’s two steps better in the right direction, who’s faster? On paper, Player A is faster, but Player B is getting there faster. So, there’s a whole lot more things. You notice the speed right away, and again, I think if you watch the games now, it’s pretty obvious. You watch Vegas and you watch the Capitals, and even the series before them, there’s a premium on speed. You just have to maybe amend your priority list – you rate a guy who’s fast, and maybe in the past where you had a guy who was bigger but slower. But you don’t just jump a guy. If you see a fast guy, you don’t take him 15 spots higher because he’s faster. I don’t think that changes at all. If you’re trying to decide between Player A and Player B, and you’ve got a guy who’s got a notable speed advantage, and you’re saying they’re very close and they’re very similar in terms of the level of player, OK, you focus on the speed. Again, I’m not going to give out any trade secrets of Rob Blake’s, but it’s been made very clear … in terms of his philosophy.

More would come down to in certain areas, you might go for a faster player over this player. Player A is faster than Player B. But again, as you saw last year, the focus with speed, I don’t see an issue with Gabe Vilardi’s skating. He’s certainly not on the rocket ship side of the spectrum, but if it was ‘speed,’ there were four or five guys drafted behind him that are faster. But, as you saw during this year, there wasn’t a better player in junior hockey when he came back. So, you wouldn’t sacrifice a clear level of player just to get speed. You wouldn’t sacrifice a clear level of player just to get skill. Now, if you had Gabe and Elias Pettersson, now have an argument. You’ve got a fast guy. I won’t tell you who was ahead because it’s not fair to say who we had ahead on the draft board, but now you’re comparing two elite players, and one has an attribute you’re looking at and one doesn’t. That might come into play.

Yannetti, on forming relationships with young players through years of scouting, and what he looks for from face-to-face meetings after games and at the NHL Combine:
I don’t have specific expectations in terms of what I want to say, what I want them to say. There are areas I want to get to and discuss. That being said, these kids nowadays, they’re very polished. They’re taught, they’re almost coached from a young age how to answer questions, how to give the right answers. The agent’s job is to make the kid as well prepared as he can in certain areas, just like a skills coach, his job is to make his kid well prepared. One of the areas an agent’s job is to make sure his kid is well prepared when he’s talking to teams. That’s good and bad. One of the things is a guy who’s a good fit for the LA Kings might not be a good fit for Chicago. A guy that’s a good fit for Chicago might not be a good fit for St. Louis, might not be a good fit for Philadelphia, and a lot of times, when I interview a kid or when our staff interviews a kid, what we hope to accomplish is to find out what the true – again, this will sound cliché, but it’s true – what the true essence of the player is, what the true essence of the kid is because some kids thrive in different environments. A kid who would thrive under Darryl Sutter is probably not going to thrive under Gerard Gallant, they’re both hugely successful coaches with almost opposite-of-the-end-of the-spectrum of how their interpersonal relationships with the kid are. A person who thrives in New Jersey – and I’m talking about New Jersey of old, when they won their three Cups – in that rigid, system-based style of everything, just from dress. Don’t forget you couldn’t have facial hair. That systema of New Jersey way back when, you might even think it was Red Army-esuqe in terms of structure and the day-to-day. Again … someone who would’ve thrived in New Jersey’s system probably wouldn’t have survived in a free-wheeling system of Montreal of years ago or maybe a Toronto now. So, while these kids are coached to answer questions so well – and they do; they do a great job – if you don’t know what the kid is like, it’s almost bad for you and bad for them.

So, my only goal when I talk to a kid is just to learn what he really is like. And it’s not easy, because they’re trying to be on their best behavior, and they want to be all things to everybody, because if they don’t get drafted 19th, they want to get drafted 20th. If they don’t get drafted first, if they’re not what Buffalo wants, they sure as hell want to make sure they’re what Montreal wants. I think these kids are coached, and I think the interviews are so artificial, and sometimes I’m not sure you get a true view of the person behind the player, of what his makeup is, of what his personality is. So, I would say what we’re trying to do, this whole notion of ‘good kids’ and ‘bad kids,’ again, just go look at an NHL roster in the Stanley Cup, and I bet you could find a perceived bad kid … on every Stanley Cup roster, and a perceived good kid on every last place roster. You know what I mean? The perception of what makes a kid good and bad is flawed in the first place, because it’s fit. Again, you can plug any entity into a championship team and they’re going to at least get along. But, again, if these kids could truly be themselves, and you could truly learn and ask the right questions where you find out what they are, that’s better than learning anything else, I think, or learning areas of where they may be deficient. Just learning what they are. I think that’s been our biggest strength.

Yannetti, on whether the personalities and characters of players like Kyle Clifford and Drew Doughty were instantly recognizable:
Our mission statement then we had to create. Not just change, we had to create a culture. When you’re creating a culture for a team – and this is what Dean really got right right off the bat – you have to create it in terms of the hockey operations; the workers, the staff, the coaches. So, from people working in the office to a scout to a coach, you have to change the culture there, create the culture there. Then you have to create the culture from within. So, you’re going to bring in young guys that are culture guys because you have to have that influx and infusion of people who know nothing but culture. They haven’t been tainted. They haven’t been warped by years in the NHL. They’re fresh, clean slates. That’s the second area you can affect culture. And the final area you can affect culture is in the NHL itself, and that’s bringing in a Jarret Stoll, a Matt Greene, and regardless of how he ended up, bringing in a Mike Richards. You can’t do the final piece until you’ve done the two foundational building blocks of culture.

Our first thing with Kyle Clifford, he’s a benchmark. He’s a generational character guy, a generational human being, and he was one of those first guys that leapt off the page. Drew ended up becoming that. When you talk to Drew, you saw an immature kid with a burning desire and a burning love for the game. His draft year wasn’t very good. He wasn’t in the shape he needed to be in. There were basic things he wasn’t doing. However, as soon as you started talking to Drew, you can’t fake passion, and you can’t fake his desire to be the best, as soon as you challenge Drew on something, as soon as you made any kind of inroads to his pride or anything that would affect his pride, there was a burn to him. Kyle’s was obvious. He walked into a room and he exuded it. Drew’s was no less important, it just was buried a little more, it needed to come out. The way Drew attacked the combine, there were questions about Drew’s shape, his physical progression and all that, but the second you watched Drew attack the combine, the second someone made that thing and doubted him, he just went and attacked it. You saw how he attacked areas. You have Kyle in terms of it’s there, there’s nothing you needed to do. Drew’s, it was just dying to get out. Drew takes a step on the ice, and you see it. You watch him in the NHL with his competitive drive, his will to make things happen, to be the best, it’s unparalleled.

A guy no one talks about, but you had a guy like Wayne Simmonds, who slept on his agent’s couch to make sure he could have extra time in L.A. with our development coaches. You started seeing things like that when we were talking to kids. You saw a drive in terms of Wayne, he went through drafts. And [Michael] Futa was the first to really bring it up – you see this character. Again, because Wayne was very immature, he needed some direction, but it was there. You take these guys with this burning desire, whether it was challenged the right way or the wrong way, a burning desire channeled the wrong way, and all of a sudden you’ve got a guy that you think’s a ‘bad’ kid, right? ‘He’s selfish.’ ‘No, he’s not, he’s just immature.’ Getting down to some of these kids, sometimes it’s obvious like Clifford, and then you just clap your hands and draft him and let others fall in line, and then sometimes you have to do a little bit more digging and realize what’s there with some of these guys. But those three guys would’ve been the start. Plus, people saw the jump that Simmonds made in that short of time. They were like, ‘well, jeez, can I start spending extra time in LA?’ You actually had guys asking to spend extra time working. [Reporter: And that’s where you come back to culture.] Yeah, so what happened with Simmonds is you now have guys that saw what he did and saw the improvements, and now they’re asking to be there. Now you have Clifford, who, when they’re there, if you work out next to Kyle Clifford, if you’re in the room with Kyle Clifford, if you don’t work out a certain way, you look bad. There’s a way he attacks drills, there’s a way he attacks the gym. If you’re standing next to him, you better be going 100%. And then the guys that don’t feel ashamed, well, then you have Clifford going at you in a one-on-one drill with you on the ice, and if he’s pissed off at the way you weren’t working, now you get scared into doing it. … Again, Clifford’s easy. You have to look a little deeper with Drew, and then you had to look really deep with Simmonds, but again, Simmonds’ character, he was one of the people that started it. It’s really important.

Yannetti, on whether it’s safe to say that the Kings will be drafting from a broader “middle tier” of the first round with the 20th overall pick:
I think there are always tiers in a draft, and without giving away anything for this draft, there are always two or three tiers in the top group, whether it’s a down year and the first tier is at three or four, or whether it’s a great year, like Doughty’s year, and the tier is at 17-20. But there are usually three tiers in that mix. It usually goes one-to-five – again, just to make it easy – five-to-nine, and then nine-to-12. It could go 10-to-15. But usually the tiers are broken up into that, and once you get outside that top 10-to-12, it tends to be a different level, a lower tier. I think that’s very safe to say in a general term, that once you start getting out of that top 10, you’re looking at a different-tier player. The thing is, everyone’s top 10 looks different. One other thing is, I bet you if you looked at 31 scouting lists, just their top 10, especially their top 20, as soon as you get to 10-to-20, you’re looking at huge differences. So, when I say there’s a ‘tier,’ or there’s two or three tiers, and that tier ends at 10-to-12, on the surface it looks like you’re diminishing your ability to get that tier of player at 20. However, that’s based on our top. I think there are probably levels in the top 12 to top 14 this year. There are probably three or four levels in that. Without getting down my list and breaking it down and looking, off the top of my head, I’d say that’s a fair assessment in a general term.

All you need to happen if you’re picking 20, you need eight players not in your top 12 to go for you to get one of those players. And that puts you right on the bubble, because every year we see it. Every year, you look at every draft list, there’s five players that are outliers. You’re in LA, you’re in Toronto, you’re in Jersey, you’re in Chicago, you’re picking 20, you know that there’s going to be five guys you don’t have in the top 10 going in the top 10-to-12. That’s just how it is. Now, you’ve already pushed yourself up to 15. In terms of those tiers, without anything happening, just based on previous years, that tier moves back to 15, 16. You just need four more of those outliers [with the 20th pick]. Maybe you have to move up, whatever. We’re right on that cusp of whether a player we covet. At 15, I would be relatively sure I could relatively say to you that we’re going to get a guy in the tier. Once 15 happens, now it’s more chance. You leave it to fate.

You’re going to get a good player at 20. If you sit here and lament the fact that there’s not going to be skill, all you’re trying to do is cover your ass. All you’re trying to do is protect yourself, because damn well there’s going to be a player drafted after 15 this year that’s going to be a stud. More than that. [Adrian] Kempe at [29]? And, again, go down an NHL list. [Brock] Boeser at, what, 23? So, there’s certainly going to be guys there. So, if you sit there and say that you’re not going to get a high-end player at 20, or whatever, you better damn well make sure there’s no one better picked after you. Again, I think there’ll be a very good player there for us at 20. Will it be in the top tier of player? That’s harder to say. Again, if you were asking me at 11, again, … I could’ve given you a list of two guys that I was sure it was going to be, and one of those two guys was drafted, which pushed Gabe back. So, again, I would’ve told you ‘we’re going to get one of these two players — or someone better.’ That happened last year. I can’t make that same thing, I can’t tell you, ‘we’re going to get one of these three players.’ But we certainly have an idea of who’ll be there at 20, and it seems like it would be a very good player and would certainly fit all the boxes that Rob has checked off in terms of what we want to do philosophically. 20 represents a guy that certainly could address any of those needs that we’ve identified in terms of drafting.

Dave Sandford/NHLI

-Lead photo via Dave Sandford/NHLI

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