WHL Draft: What makes a team’s draft lists so different?

A little while ago, I spoke with someone working for a WHL team about the process of the 2021 WHL Draft. I asked them numerous questions based purely on curiosity about their process and their players they targeted. One of the things they said was, “We had five pages of players on our list and luckily for us we left the draft without having to turn over to page two.” With over 200 players taken in that draft, it begs the question, what makes a team’s draft lists so different?

For parents or coaches who have players who haven’t been part of the process yet, here are a number of different reasons that add to the pot-o-stew that makes for how a WHL Draft list gets made and how things go down on draft day.

Exposure

There are many different events which bring all the scouts out to see the players. These are the major tournaments, provincial gatherings, and best-on-best type scenarios where scouts get a chance to see who can find a way to make a positive impact. Many scouts still like to see the majority of their views with live and in-person viewings so these types of events are a major time saver as well. Most provincial scouts will have chances to see all of the prospects in their general area but especially in a shortened scouting year like this it means that the time to watch was cut in half due to last season’s draft and the focus.

I had a parent ask me what events they should try and get their son in because they weren’t the richest of families but still wanted to try and get a little more exposure to their kid if they could. Every year though, there are a few kids who pass through the draft and the story from the scout was probably, “I didn’t get to see them enough.”

Familiarity

This could probably fall under the category of exposure in a sense too, but familiarity might just mean team lists lean towards the players who maybe they have more hands-on experience with. Some team scouts are coaches, or skills coaches, or parents with other parent connections. Maybe they’ve helped this particular player grow. If there is a connection within the WHL organization to a particular league even that can be a factor on whether someone is 10 spots higher or lower.

Team playing style/drafting strategy

If you were to try and make a team with unique players with unique playing strengths, it can make the roster a bit less flexible in a sense. Throughout organizations, there is usually a strategy within to target players who fit their predetermined set of qualifications. That can include both on the ice and off the ice qualities. Some teams will only draft a player if they see
that extra bit of hustle. Some only wanna draft smooth skaters with smooth edges. Some lean a bit towards size with at least a little physical component. Regardless of how good of a player you are, there might be some teams who simply say, “I don’t see them as a fit for our particular team we are trying to build.” That’s an internal discussion.

An anonymous WHL staff member said, “Teams have certain comfort zones within their organizational development pathways. Much like any workplace, teams learn from previous experience in their organization’s results. Thus creating an obvious penchant for drafting like-type players based on previous successes and avoiding a certain type of player that ultimately haven’t been at the forefront of developmental success.”

Risk Aversion

Here’s an anonymous quote from someone within a WHL organization.

“The biggest factor, to me, is that the age group we are drafting contains players that are at vastly different stages for their maturation. And each scouting staff has a different process of accounting for that.”

Maturation can be seen in the projection of their character as well. It is why teams do feel more comfortable if they have a sense of what type of family they come from in order to build trust. Teams value highly how a coach speaks of someone too. If they see them as good teammates, community oriented, a hard worker, and a good listener, it can go a long way. It is why organizations might draft the brother, son, or cousin of someone they’ve already dealt with. Takes a bit of the perceived risk out.

There is also risk in simple physical growth. Teams will be trying to project physical size as part of the equation in order to build reach, compete, and strength in a player. As one scout said to me in the fall, “When in doubt, ask the mom how tall they think their son is gonna be.” It made me laugh. Moms always know.

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Risk is seen in many different ways. It can mean someone from Manitoba coming to play in BC or someone from BC coming to Manitoba or any combination you like is a real worry for many teams so they try to get a sense pre draft of how willing a player is to come.

Another anonymous WHL staff member said, “ You have to factor in the likelihood of a prospect actually signing with your team, something that drastically changes your internal optimism on draft day. Potential college commitment, location bias and team cycles play a heavy factor. As do agents, coach/managerial relationships.”

For players who are probably top-3 round talents, teams have to weigh the risk of a player potentially coming. Every year it seems like some high-end players in the 2nd and 3rd rounds opt to go a different path.

Some families just say no.

This can be included in other categories as well but I think the simplicity of it deserved its own point. As much as the team can not like the fit of a player, sometimes the families have offers from other places which give them at least the opportunity to be a little picky. I know different scouts, coaches, GMs, etc have varying opinions on this as you’d obviously just like to draft any player you’d like.

But… sometimes families and agents just say no so they can say yes to someone two spots below you.

Who has the final say?

The process of creating a drafting strategy and list come with a sense of who’s voice is louder in which spots. In the first few couple rounds, some GM’s trust their head scouts or some overrule them I think. It’s not necessarily something I’ve heard the most conversations about but I do know sometimes the GM overrides the scouts.

As the draft moves along, sometimes it is just about who has the most pull in the room to name a name. “Who do you like here?” might get asked of a particular regional scout in the 7th round. I’ve also had scouts say to me, “I really liked that player in that spot and I wished I fought harder for them.”

Team needs/positional needs

With the short turnaround of a WHL team, addressing team needs is something that is often very targeted during the draft. NHL fans might think targeting positional needs might be a losing strategy but those players you’re hoping to have for 10-15 years in your organization. In the WHL, a lot of the holes and weaknesses in your roster can be addressed in the draft.

Teams might say, “We wanna take the best C available” or “We will take the best goaltender available with our 3rd round pick.” Or even as simple as, “Our first 4 round picks are gonna be forward, forward, defenseman, defenseman.” If you’re really tuned into the strength of a future draft class too, you might target forwards earlier knowing that the next class has a strength of defensemen in it or vice versa. It’s about targeting and filling rosters.

It might even be more targeted than that too. You might have a certain offensive forward or an offensive dman who needs a complimentary partner to play with. “Player X needs a winger”.

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Here are some final thoughts about the draft that I know to be true.

1. Some teams only have a list of 100 or so. If they get to the ends of their lists, they will either stop picking or go to their regional scouts for a last call. Most teams never go past that list.

2. Scouts often wish they could make one of two more picks. If your son doesn’t happen to be picked and you had a feeling it could be possible, you might have a scout in the room arguing to at least continue to make you a future option for listing. When you’re a scout, your job is to see the potential in these young men so you get in the habit of believing in what could be. It’s why good coaches and good scouts do what they do. They like helping people reach their potential.

3. I don’t have the numbers but even when making my list, outside of the top-75 or so, you could convince me to take any of 150 players in the next 30 spots. That is how close some of these discussions are. Some players need to lengthen their stride or grow a few inches or just work on the strength of their shot. They all have a few things to work on to really take their hockey game to the next level. If you said to me, “This player is gonna grow X inches and they plan on working on Y and Z in the summer,” I would be naturally inclined to believe you.

I always wanna remind parents, coaches, agents and kids, if you get drafted by a team, it means someone in the room sees how you can improve and believes in you enough to say something about it.

If you do not get your name called, it does not mean people do not believe in you. Scouts want one more pick, or were overruled, or haven’t seen you play enough, or might be excited to keep tabs on you for next season as you continue to progress. Players who are drafted in the later rounds probably have a similar success rate than a player listed and brought to camp so do not be discouraged, do not give up.

Anyways,

Those are a few of the reasons why draft lists are different. An agent might ask someone what they think about a kid and they might say, “He’s on our board at 56” and the next might say, “We don’t have him on our board.” It’s also why you can be sitting in the stands as a parent and list the kids on your team in order of their potential, and be shocked on draft day when it didn’t go as you would have thought. It doesn’t necessarily mean you were right or wrong, it just means that teams thought differently.

As we have released rankings throughout the year, it’s been a growing process of evaluating and becoming more familiar with each player in each region. I’ve had many people message me saying, “I’m surprised you have player X lower” or “I can’t believe you have player X over player Y. I’ve seen them a lot.”

The reality is…. You’re allowed to disagree. That’s ok.

There are players I have ranked on my board that I would not take if I were building a team because they wouldn’t fit my desired playing style. That’s ok too. Those players will be taken and they will continue to develop and grow and have successes.

I hope this helped those who have not been through this process before gain a little bit of an understanding of the conversations and debates within a WHL scouting room. I’m sure many of these things aren’t surprising but when you see a talented player go higher or lower than you expect, just keep in mind, there could be many, many, many, reasons why that is the case.

Thanks for reading!

05/17/2022