EDMONTON - David Conte has been scouting NHL prospects for 29 years and his track record with the New Jersey Devils is excellent.
The Devils have drafted Brendan Shanahan, Bill Guerin, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rolston, Jason Smith, Petr Sykora, Scott Gomez, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and others in the first round during Conte’s tenure.
Conte’s staff has drafted other solid NHLers in the later rounds as well, but for a 15-year span, no team had more success in the first round than Conte’s Devils.
The executive vice-president and director of scouting for the Devils spoke with me about his philosophies on scouting as we near the NHL entry draft.
Gregor: You’ve had a lot of success scouting, 29 years with the Devils and 20 years as the head of scouting. How much different is the preparation for you now than it was then? Has the increase in entry level contracts made it more exhaustive?
Conte: Well, I don’t know if the money or the contracts has any change on what you do. I think obviously every team has gotten far more sophisticated with the advent of computers and now there are a million pundits out there from Red Line (Report) to Craig’s List to Bob McKenzie to Central Scouting, so there is a consensus level that’s out there for the general public to consume, which is fine when you’re looking at 30 picks. It’s a lot more difficult when you’re trying to look at one for your particular team.
Gregor: How much, if any, has advanced stats entered into your scouting reports?
Conte: We talk a lot about it, the Moneyball theory and everything else, and I don’t think that the hockey playing public is a big a sample as all of that. It is totally relevant, clearly it is relevant, and clearly there are some trends. If you’re going to invest your picks and your money into high-level young talent, there should be some substantiation via productivity and height and weights and various factors, but the real factor is watching them play. It comes down to “Do you want them on the team or you don’t want them on the team?”
Gregor: What has been your basic guideline or specific attributes that you need to see in a player, and how have you been able to find them on a continual basis?
Conte: When I figure out what that is, I’ll let you know. But right now, we’re just trying to ascertain all of the different things from character to style of play and how they fit into our culture. I think that nothing has terribly changed, but I think that each draft is a unique and new experience. There is no next Scott Stevens. There is the next great player, there is the next Nathan MacKinnon, but there is not the next Mario Lemieux. I mean, they are all so special unto themselves and I think that we need to take each year as it comes and start with a clean slate and some level of objectivity.
Gregor: When you go to a top-10 or even a top-five pick, and we do see historically that there is a drop-off. How do you find where that drop-off is? Is it noticeable from an experienced scout as yourself as much as it seems to be when you read all of those mock drafts?
Conte: I try not to be influenced by that. We try to categorize and quantify the value of each particular pick and see where those drop-offs are and try to adjust accordingly. So try to move forward, try to stay where you are or move backwards. Again, there is too much of this talk. It’s great for you and it’s great for the fans, but for those of us who have to make an absolute decision, it’s kind of better to rely on our own knowledge, on our own scouting reports, and our own people and basically sequester ourselves to making the choice that we think is right for the New Jersey Devils. I suppose that what might be popular with the media, or popular with the fans, or even popular with your coaches sometimes, might not be what we see. This is a pick that will impact, especially when picking ninth, this franchise for a long time to come. It is easier to get caught up in the up-and-down rankings because you are only waiting nine turns, but I also think it’s far more important to pick correctly because you have less room for error.
Gregor: When you break down a player’s skill, how do you know whether a guy has peaked at 18 or 19 or if he still has room to grow?
Conte: I don’t think that you do know, and sometimes they’re so advanced at that age, their level of maturity both mentally and physically is evident and, sometimes, that’s enough. Other times, you just see potential oozing and the improvement ratio over the years. Each given case is so very special unto itself. If you can get a mature guy who is 18 years old now, but it is like he is going on 22 physically, he is big, strong and talented and competitive and he can help your team tomorrow, well that’s a bonus. Conversely, if you have to wait two or three (years) and he’s going to be a great player, well that’s patience that you need to have as well. Your questions are excellent, but I don’t think a right answer exists for this one.
Gregor: When you look at a player it’s easy to see their boxscores; their height, their weight, even if you want to look at their family history, and how many goals and assists and points they’ve had. You brought up character earlier, how do you evaluate character from one player to the next from year to year?
Conte: With difficulty, but players that play under pressure, players that elevate their games in the most important situations, players that work the clock and the score and they play for the team, I think those are things that are trademarks of players that have survived and prospered with the Devils. We’ve not had a lot of players that put “I” before the team and we’d like to keep it that way. Again, how do you make that happen? Well you don’t, but often if you have enough players of that great character, everyone follows suit. If you have people that are selfish and are into it for individual things, well, other players will follow suit in that regard, too. So it is an important thing, the contagious element of your team and how that will impact your guys. Are your older players nurturing and do they want young players to be better or do they consider them to be threats to their own security? There are a myriad of factors that really have to be handled often when the players arrive in the NHL or arrive in your organization. But, me personally, I want to give the raw material to our coaching staff and the management that we can make the appropriate trade if we need to, that we can give them the appropriate types of players to be successful. It’s never been an exact science, and it never will be an exact science, but it’s exciting.
This is the Part 2 of Gregor’s interview with New Jersey Devils’ director of scouting David Conte
Gregor: Some people are saying this draft is as deep as the 2003 NHL entry draft. Do you agree with that or is that wishful thinking?
Conte: I think it has some promise along those lines. Do I think it’s similar? Not really. I think it may be even deeper in terms of the quantity of players that will go deeper into the draft. In terms of the glamour and glitz that came out of the 2003 draft, I’m not so sure that you’re going to see Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf and Zach Parise late in the first, or Shea Weber in the second round or players of that style or that impact come later. If anything, you might see very long-term career players come out of the third or the fourth round and more of them. So to predict it ... I’ve always looked at it like going into the ninth grade and trying to predict who is going to be the best doctor. Well, the ones who have the best grades and the ones who are the most motivated and the ones who work the hardest, they probably have the best chance. But life hasn’t factored into the equation yet, where girlfriends or injuries or family crisis or illness or other factors can come to bear that would disrupt what looks to be a rosy path to success.
So in every case, I think that everything is different, every draft is different, and it won’t matter how great this draft is if we don’t pick the right player at nine (the Devils’ have the ninth pick in the first round) because the mistakes are still there. There are landmines everywhere and everyone in the scouting department has great empathy and understands how those landmines are there for everybody. Sometimes, an opposing team will save you from those landmines by taking that player before you had a chance to make that mistake.
Gregor: You’ve made some great picks in your career. Is there one you look back on and felt that you got fooled by this player and for one reason or another he just never panned out? When you look back at drafts, do you figure out why a player didn’t pan out like you’d expected?
Conte: I think that there are a lot of factors. I could make excuses for my mistakes, because there are lots of them, just like anyone else in this business, but anyone who has been in this business for as long as I have has a graveyard of mistakes. I think that some factors, there are calculated chances that you take and calculated risk. We took a calculated risk on Adrian Foster (28th overall, 2001), who was just a brilliant talent who suffered from injuries all of the way through and never really got out of it. So that’s the excuse. Was it worth doing? Absolutely, because he could have been a special player had those factors mitigated themselves and become different. But it didn’t happen, he certainly tried his best and he certainly had an enormous amount of talent and he certainly didn’t cheat us, he did the best that he could. So was it our mistake, was it a mistake to take that risk? In hindsight yes, but at the time, absolutely not.
Gregor: Do you have a strategy or philosophy on how you draft? Is it always take the best player available or after the third round is it a gut feeling or drafting for need?
Conte: Well, we have a large staff and all of the people who work there are very competent and work very hard and their feelings and in-depth knowledge of their areas have a large bearing. I also have a boss and, sometimes, his feelings come in to play, not so much on who we take but the kind of player we take, whether it is a goalie or a tough guy or whether it be a goal scorer. And sometimes, I suppose if you take a player, it is for organizational need. Steve Sullivan was a great example. We wanted some talent and he was small and he was there in the ninth round and I and a number of people loved him and still do. He was the guy to take and he’s had a spectacular career, but one of the reasons was that we didn’t have that type of player and the opportunity was there for him to make a rapid ascent. He was a healthy scratch his first game in the American Hockey League, yet he’s also played in an NHL all-star game. So, again, the predictability I would not call it so much smart as it was fortuitous. I would call it wise to put faith in that you really like things about this player and you can overlook the obvious about being five-eight or five-nine or, as Steve would think, five-11.
Gregor: Give me your scouting report on Curtis Lazar (of the Edmonton Oil Kings).
Conte: He is a pretty complete and interesting player. We had a very, very good interview with him. He’s what a lot of people like to think of as a good Western Canadian kid: honest, strong, simple and to the point. I can’t think of anything negative I would say about him. He’s versatile, he’s played on winning teams and he possesses one of the things that we like; a player that gives things up for the team. You can’t have enough of those guys for anyone who has been watching these finals. It’s a lot more perspiration than it is inspiration. It’s a hard, hard game to play when everything is on the line, and those with the character seem to deal with it better than those who wanted to do it the pretty way.
Gregor: How many times do you need to see a player either live or on tape to feel confident that you are making the right assessment of him?
Conte: About the last game before he retires (laughs). It’s a tough job, I would like to see him play 50 times, but I think that your first impressions and your last impressions carry greater weight. ... It’s just kind of like a player, you just, you take it a shift at a time, a game at a time and, in this case, you take it at whatever game you see it and if someone’s been hurt and you miss them, but you see them in April and they wow you, you’ve just got to factor that in and maybe take the chance that what you saw is what he really is, and what he’s going to be. Conversely, if a guy has a bad game, I don’t think that it should destroy everything good thing he’s done. I tell that all of the time to our kids at training camp: Have a great exhibition game, it doesn’t make your career; if you have a bad one, it doesn’t break your career. It’s the body of work that really counts. The same for us, we do this job for the teams. It’s our body of work over not just one year, but over a long haul that we should be judged for.
Gregor: Do you feel that you can be more accurate when you are watching a person live in the rink or can you get just as equal of a read on him by watching film? What’s better for hockey scouts?
Conte: There is absolutely, in my mind, no question that being there is the most important part. The game involves so many things that a video doesn’t catch or a feeling it doesn’t catch or the body language when your guy’s sitting on a bench or it’s how he responds to a teammate’s success or failure, or how he defends a teammate or is defended, how he works when he’s ahead a game or is behind a game. Absolutely, there is nothing that will replace the physically nature of a guy scouting a player and having a more intimate appreciation for what he contributes to that team and how he might contribute to your team.
You can listen to Gregor weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the TEAM 1260 and read him at oilersnation.com.
On Twitter: @jasongregor
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