By Andy Eide
Jake Lee skates off the ice after playing 25-plus minutes of defense for the Seattle Thunderbirds. He sits at his stall in the Seattle dressing room and begins to pry off his sweat soaked shoulder pads. The coaching staff come into the room for a quick post-game briefing and message. Before Lee can shower and dress, the local media have some questions. He answers them, but his night isn’t done yet. Waiting still is a scout from an NHL team and he has some questions of his own, for what turns out to be an impromptu job interview. A job interview for the dream jobs of all dream jobs.
This is the norm for a 17-year-old NHL Draft prospect playing in the Western Hockey League.
“It’s pretty cool honestly,” Lee says of the experience. “Just to be able to talk to these teams. It’s always been a part of my dream to be drafted in the NHL one day. Now that I can see the steps coming forward, it’s pretty cool.”
While the NHL officially granted Seattle a franchise in December of 2018, the league has been operating in the Seattle area for over 40 years. Attend any Thunderbirds game at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent, or a Silvertips game in Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena and you’ll see, up in the corners, a slew of scouts representing various NHL teams.
The Western Hockey League is one of the main feeder leagues for the NHL and night in and night out, NHL level talent is on display. At a recent Thunderbirds game, over 40 NHL scouts were in attendance. The main draw that night was Lethbridge Hurricanes star Dylan Cozens, thought to be a top-five pick for the upcoming draft.
Players are eligible for the NHL Draft upon the completion of their 17-year-old season so for a guy like Lee, this year is big. After a strong showing during his rookie year last season, the six-foot-two, 216 pound Lee headed home to Sherwood Park, Alberta knowing that he needed to prepare in the off season differently for his upcoming draft year.
“You definitely have to put in a little bit of extra work coming into such a big year,” Lee says. “A lot of its part of the mental side of things. You’ve got to stay strong and stay focused. You can’t worry too much about the draft, that can eat you up really easily. Have to stay centered.”
That pressure can get to a player.
Players like Lee are aware that the scouts are there every night. They know that everything they do is being scrutinized.
Every turnover, every pass off the mark, missed defensive assignment can feel monumental if you’re worried too much about what the NHL thinks of you. It’s a real pressure but one that young players need to manage.
“It’s just something that you have to keep out of your head,” Lee says. “If you go into every game thinking ‘oh, I’ve got to have my best game because there a ton of scouts watching me’, that’s not going to help you at all. You’ve just got to go out there, you’re on the ice all by yourself. You’re playing for your team.”
Lee isn’t the only local player going through this process.
Lee’s teammate Dillon Hamaliuk has shown up on draft lists, as has Seattle forward Henrik Rybinski. In Everett, goaltender Dustin Wolf and defenseman Gianni Fairbrother are also under the microscope.
Investing a draft pick and salary on an unproven prospect can be risky business for NHL teams. Most clubs have multiple scouts who will get out to see prospects for multiple viewings. The easy part is watching them on the ice and projecting how their talent will translate to the next level.
The hard part is finding out what kind of person they are.
Not only will scouts talk to guys like Lee after games, but they will inquire with the head coaches as well.
“What type of player they are on the ice, what they need to improve on,” Lee’s coach, Matt O’Dette says about what scouts want to know from him. “And then, what kind of kid are they? Are they a good kid? Do they have good work habits? Are they a good teammate? It’s amazing what these scouts do.
“If you’re considered to be a high pick, they’ll talk to your coach, they’ll talk to your high school teacher, they’ll talk to everybody. If they’re investing a first round pick on a guy, they’re going to know as much as they can about a kid. The best teams, that’s what they do.”
Scouts become part talent evaluator and part sleuth.
Lee says that he’s had regular post-game meetings with scouts this season and the questions he gets are generally non-hockey related.
“There’s been some weird questions,” Lee says. “I’ve done some personality tests that have asked some weird questions but most of them are just trying to get to know me, where I’m from and my family. There’s a few questions about hockey.”
For players and coaches in the WHL, the balance between development and winning is important.
As important as the team winning is, making sure that the players develop is ultimately the role of teams like the Thunderbirds and Silvertips. The two can go hand in hand, as winning draws more attention, longer playoff runs and bigger sample sizes for scouts to grade on.
“It can be tough but that’s part of junior hockey,” O’Dette says. “It’s that balance of winning and at the same time being mindful of the way your young guys are developing, if they’re in the right situations and getting the ice time they need to improve. We want to develop our guys to be better hockey players and better people and be ready to attack whatever their ambitions are after they’re T-Birds.”
There a lot of distractions for players going through their draft year.
Not only are the scouts watching but there is more media attention given to eligible players, both locally and nationally. Interview requests increase for a player during his draft year as the spot light grows.
And then there are the lists.
The NHL Draft has grown in popularity from a meeting that wasn’t televised to a two-day event that brings media in from around the league. As that popularity has grown, so has interest in the prospects.
Self-proclaimed draft experts have sprouted in abundance and the internet, twitter and other social media sites are filled with mock drafts, draft rankings and prospect profiles varying in degrees of accuracy and quality. It’s another distraction for players in their draft year and something that coaches like O’Dette encourage players to avoid looking at.
O’Dette has some experience with this. He was an assistant coach with the Thunderbirds when they had four players drafted in 2015 — a class that included current New York Islanders star Mathew Barzal. He also went through the process himself, as a player with the OHL’s Kitchner Rangers, and was selected by the Florida Panthers with the 157th pick in the 1994 Draft.
He says the online rankings are the biggest difference between his experience and what players like Lee face today.
“Back then, they had rankings and all that stuff, but you never knew what it was from day to day,” O’Dette says. “You might get it once a year in The Hockey News, but you couldn’t bring it up online and stuff like that, where you knew what your ranking was or what they were saying about you, mock drafts and all that stuff. They didn’t have any of that. It’s different for the guys, they have all the information about themselves at their fingertips. Sometimes reading too much of that isn’t too helpful.”
The pressure of hearing from scouts is one thing, but having your game critiqued by a blogger who may only have seen grainy video of you is another.
The NHL puts out a ranking from their Central Scouting each quarter. Even that list isn’t the best barometer of where a player will be drafted. The Central Scouting staff is limited in its viewings and won’t see these players as often as the teams’ scouting staffs will.
Lee has turned in a strong season and is considered a good two-way defenseman. He can move the puck, play with a physical edge and chip in offensively. He’s scored three times to go with 21 assists this year. He started the season ranked as a ‘C’ skater but most recently was moved to ‘B’ skater by Central Scouting, which means they project him to be drafted around the second or third round.
“I’ve seen a few lists,” Lee says. “I don’t go out of my way to look for them. Everyone has their opinion and it doesn’t matter at all to me. What matters is the draft ranking that comes out in June. You just have to ignore that stuff, whether you’re high up or not even on the list, it’s irrelevant.”
It is irrelevant.
Ultimately, the only lists that matter is the list maintained by the NHL teams and those are not made public. While much entertainment can be had from reading internet draft rankings, the Draft rarely goes the way its predicted. Each team views these players differently and if one has a player like Lee listed as a first-round talent, they just may take him that high, regardless of where Central Scouting has him rated.
With the WHL’s season down to its final two weeks, the scrutiny for Lee won’t end soon. Lee already played in the CHL’s Top Prospect game – and picked up an assist on a third-period, game-tying goal – but after Seattle’s season ends he’ll head off to the Draft Combine in May.
After that, the nerves will be in high gear as the NHL convenes in Vancouver on June 21st for this year’s Draft.
Lee’s not focused on those events just yet. The Thunderbirds are fighting for a playoff spot and winning is the goal he’s focused on for now. A goal that just may end up improving his Draft stock in the process.
“Being part of a winning situation is good for you as far as getting drafted or signed,” O’Dette says. “You’ve got to just play your game, don’t let the outside distractions get to you. I think for the most part our guys are pretty un-phased by most things, they just go play. Whether its naivete, or whatever it is, guys just play and don’t let it bother them too much.”