In an ideal world, Los Angeles Kings director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti would currently be crisscrossing the globe in search of the next building block for his team’s loaded prospect pool. He’d be digging in on the 2021 NHL draft class and starting to piece together player evaluations. Instead, he’s tracking when leagues will start and whether his scouts will be able to go to the games. And he’s trying to stay optimistic that the 2020-21 season, however it looks, will last long enough to give his team the best data and information to work with heading into next summer’s draft.
“Well the modus operandi is set for you. Last year, [from mid-March on] there was no live scouting,” Yannetti said. “Now you’re going into this year with a similar mindset. Whatever live scouting is available, you go with.”
Indeed, adaptability, flexibility and patience might end up being the most important traits for scouts like Yannetti this year. What they’re able to do will be more dictated to them than by them. The term “roller coaster” continues to be the most apt and most frequently used descriptor for the coming season. The daily uncertainty that comes with operating in a world still gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic is fraught with tension for all parties. Coaches want to coach, players want to play and scouts want to scout, but their ability to do so is completely out of their hands.
At this moment, there might be no group in hockey under more pressure to figure things out than league executives and commissioners. They’re the ones who have to find a way to have seasons amid a host of very legitimate issues, not the least of which is a global pandemic with cases rising in many areas. While European teams leagues have largely resumed operations to some degree (with a few yet to open their regular seasons), much of North America remains dormant. That soon will change, however, as U.S. junior leagues, men’s college hockey and Canada’s major junior circuits are aiming toward resumption. The process of putting a season together has been anything but easy.
What are prospect leagues planning?
Josh Fenton, commissioner of the NCHC — one of the top conferences in men’s college hockey, with teams stretching from Colorado to Ohio — has worked with athletic directors to come up with one of the more interesting setups. It will operate as a “pod” for three weeks in Omaha, Nebraska, where all eight conference teams — including the likes of North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota Duluth — will converge to play the first portion of their schedules in a plan that mimics the NHL’s bubble for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I think one of the key things for us was health and safety of the student-athletes,” Fenton said. “I think all of us were nervous about setting our teams into travel mode, especially given the geography of our conference. We were going to have a hard time regionalizing our schedule. So we looked to play in a centralized location to take some of that [travel] away from them at least to start the season. We obviously can’t be in the pod for the entire season, but this gives us the best opportunity to start.”
The NCHC plans to open its season in the pod on Dec. 1 with strict health protocols in place, giving each of its teams 10 games to be played over the three-week period. Most of those schools will have already completed their fall semesters, while others will rely on virtual learning. The conference hopes that teams will be able to complete a 26-game conference schedule with the remaining games coming at their campus arenas after Jan. 1.
The QMJHL was the first North American league to fully open its operations on Oct. 2. Quebec’s major junior circuit lasted one weekend before COVID-19 shut down operations of two teams due to positive tests results. And within a few weeks, the Quebec-based teams all had to pause due to rising levels of the virus in enough cities close to teams. The Canadian Maritimes-based teams however, have continued to play, with strict travel requirements in place for the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
The WHL announced recently that it would not open play until January, and while the OHL is hopeful for a start in early December, there is some talk that Ontario’s top junior circuit will not resume until January. The AHL, ECHL and SPHL have an indefinite timeline to return but all plan to have some sort of season in 2020-21.
There are many financial considerations that are top of mind for league commissioners across the hockey landscape. Some teams at the junior and minor league pro level have already opted out of the season, citing finances and the inability to sell tickets. For Fenton, the hope is that his conference will be able to recoup some revenue that is shared among all eight member schools for the pod through various means. He says the motivation behind getting creative about the pod scenario, however, is about the players who so desperately want to play.
“We talked about their experience being ripped away very abruptly last year at the most important time of the year, with some having aspirations for conference titles or national titles,” Fenton said. “We’ve continued to live on this uncertain ground, but as I’ve told our membership on numerous occasions, everything that I’m doing and we’re doing in the conference office is to provide those competitive experiences that these groups of student athletes have worked so hard for and frankly deserve.”
How are draft prospects approaching this season?
The players have been among the most powerless in this current situation. While many NHL teams were able to loan out many of their prospects to European pro leagues, far more players were left without options. And among those most concerned about the ongoing situation are the prospects who are about to enter their draft seasons.
One example is Matthew Beniers, my No. 8 prospect for the class at this point in the year. If there was no pandemic, the versatile forward was set to be a freshman at Harvard University, preparing for his first collegiate season. But when the Ivy League announced in July that all of its members schools would be suspending all athletics competitions until Jan. 1, plans changed.
Beniers, who has some excellent skating ability and puck skills, was forced into a decision that he didn’t want to make. The potential for zero hockey games over 10 months of a season in which he’s projected to be a first-round draft pick did not sit well, especially after missing out on his opportunity to play for a World Under-18 Championship last season.
“I was fully in at Harvard,” Beniers said. “I took my time to commit in the first place, and then COVID happened and they postponed their season. It was really not looking good. We were open with coach [Ted Donato] that we were going to look into other options because it’s my draft year, and as much as I loved Harvard, we needed to look around to see what was best for me this year and moving forward. I never wanted to be someone who decommitted. I wanted to stay loyal, but it was a crazy time, and this was something I needed to do.”
Beniers eventually landed at the University of Michigan, which could have as many as three 2021 first-round picks on its current roster (Beniers joins Owen Power and Kent Johnson). The Wolverines had been practicing for much of the fall under the school’s health protocols in small groups but have recently moved to full team practices. The Big Ten is expected to announce a schedule for its season as soon as this week, with opening weekend slated for Nov. 14-15.
“Michigan seemed like a great place for me. We’ll probably be one of the first teams to play, and since I got here, I was able to skate and train. We got to work on different skill things you normally wouldn’t get to work on. It turned out to be a good decision for me. Obviously, if there was no COVID, I don’t think this would happen.”
Harvard has been particularly hard hit in terms of pro departures. Several expected returnees signed NHL contracts, and one of the team’s top returning scorers, Jack Drury, opted to sign a pro deal in Sweden to continue his development after the Ivy League’s postponement of fall and winter athletics. Some of the junior-aged players for the Crimson, like NHL draft picks Henry Thrun and Sean Farrell, returned to the USHL to practice and play with teams while taking virtual classes. They are expected to rejoin Harvard after Jan. 1, assuming the Ivy League schools have a plan in place to return to play.
Some North American leagues, like the WHL, are loosening restrictions on where players can play until the league resumes operations. WHL players have been granted the right to play for other junior or U18 teams with the expectation they would return to their WHL clubs later. But drafted players expected to play in the minor leagues this year will have to wait until training camps open if NHL parent clubs were unable to secure loan agreements for them.
How are NHL teams approaching prospect development?
Regardless of start times, NHL teams have very important decisions to make regarding their top prospects and their development. Most players have not gone this long between games in their entire hockey careers, even going back to their youth hockey days.
For rebuilding teams like the Kings, that becomes particularly concerning since they have so much invested in their future. Not knowing when the NHL will start is tough enough, but with so many players not able to play in leagues beneath the NHL — at least not at this time — there is valid concern.
“When you have a prospect, the most crucial time in their development is from when they’re drafted until they’re 22,” Yannetti said. “Those are the years all the big changes happen, physically. That’s when they’re able to adapt the most, and their ability to learn and process, take information in … that’s the stage. When they can’t do it now, they can’t get it back later. So now you have to be creative.”
Nelson Emerson is one of the Kings’ front-office staffers who has been tasked with getting creative. He is the director of player personnel and has worked closely with the player development team to make sure current Kings players and prospects have what they need to stay active.
“We make sure that our development team has constant contact with these players,” Emerson said. “What we were trying to figure out is where is the player, where can he train, is the gym open, does he have ice? We stayed updated that way. If there was a situation where a player was in a tough spot, we got involved and helped him get somewhere where he could have positive stuff going on.”
The Kings have the luxury of their ownership group also owning Eisbaren Berlin, a pro team in Germany’s DEL. The club sent five of its more prominent prospects — Alex Turcotte, Tyler Madden, Aidan Dudas, Akil Thomas and Jacob Ingham — to spend the preseason training with Berlin and get some action in preseason games. Madden ended up suffering a broken finger that required surgery, and Turcotte returned to the Kings to train at the team’s practice facility. Others were already loaned out, as a number of Kings players, including top Swedes Samuel Fagemo and Tobias Bjornfot, are already playing in professional leagues.
The team’s top prospect is one who probably will receive as much or more attention from Emerson as anyone. Quinton Byfield, who was selected with the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, has one of the better setups of any prospect. He’s among those training with former NHLer-turned-performance coach Gary Roberts, one of the most respected individual coaches in the game today. That has Byfield around some of the biggest stars in the NHL, including Connor McDavid, on the ice and in the weight room. Emerson said the Kings hope to eventually transition Byfield to their team training facility later in the year as camp approaches.
Los Angeles has opened its training facility under the NHL’s protocols, with several players from the NHL roster and other prospects already preparing for next season. Emerson says everyone on site gets tested for coronavirus three times a week.
One of the biggest concerns is what will happen to the AHL season. For many teams, the AHL is the primary finishing school for top prospects. That might be even more true for the Kings, as they signed a number of young prospects who will be AHL-eligible this season. Their top farm club, the Ontario Reign, shares a practice facility with the NHL team, allowing for some of the most hands-on training between an NHL team and its prospects. Turcotte, the No. 5 overall pick in 2019, is one of the players likely to start his pro career there.
“Where we’re at, Ontario is critical for us. We want our top players under our umbrella. The AHL and when they start is very important to us. We are hoping we get good news on that front. If the NHL is going to start early in the new year, hopefully the AHL is right behind that,” Emerson said. “We love that the team is right here in our facility. It allows our staff to have constant contact with the players. We hope things can get up and running and back to normal soon. It is a concern, and we talk about it every day.”
What will scouting for the 2021 draft look like?
While teams get their current prospect system in order, they still need to be focused on the future. The 2019-20 season was cut short but enough games were played to give scouts a good picture of the draft class. This year, the threat of stoppages, travel restrictions and a number of additional issues will present challenges to every NHL team.
“When you all have access to the same things and you’re all in the same situation, there’s no advantage. Not one NHL team has an advantage right now,” Yannetti said of 2021 draft preparations. “You have to go pretty deep to find things to worry about. It’s not like anyone is going to go to live games first or teams have access to platforms and media that we don’t.
“Everybody, in terms of evaluation, will be working under very similar scenarios. You would think at some point things are going to open back up. If you do the right amount of work now, when the live games are available to you, you go.”
Yannetti said the Kings are well set up to fill some gaps with video and analytics but hopes they will be able to have more live views down the road. Wherever hockey is being played in North America, the Kings have local scouts to track those games, so long as the games are within driving distance — at least for the time being. The European scouts have a little more leeway in terms of travel.
There is no real expectation of a “normal” season, but there is certainly hope for something close. But until teams know more, it’s back to riding the roller coaster.
“It’s challenging for everybody,” Emerson said. “Every day we come in and we’re looking for a start date, and there’s been no answers. Everyone is dealing with the same thing. You’ve just got to stay positive and hang in there.”