With the NHL Draft quickly approaching, I wanted to talk to someone who’s been following the draft for years, and has a ton of knowledge on the 2023 NHL Draft.
I couldn’t think of anyone better to speak to than Jérôme Bérubé, who is the Director of Scouting for HockeyProspect.com. To me, their Black Book is the best draft guide every single year, and Jérôme has final say on a lot of their draft list. You get detailed reports on 112 players, as well as comments from NHL scouts.
Jérôme was kind enough to speak with me for a while, and we went over a verity of topics. We started with how he got into scouting, and then went into detail on this upcoming NHL Draft, as well as how he would approach that 27th pick. We also spoke about players around 27 that make sense for the Colorado Avalanche, and what makes scouting goaltenders so difficult, and those parts will be released here in the near future. We also had to discuss Connor Bedard, because now the Avalanche have to deal with him multiple times a year.
(Note: some of the answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length)
How did you get started in scouting?
I was always into junior hockey growing up. Following the NHL draft, I used to buy the hockey magazines just to read on prospects, and that was the same thing for NBA drafts, NFL drafts. As I grew older, I really got into the scouting part, but I really didn’t know what I was doing, I just loved watching Junior hockey. You think you know, but you don’t. And then, I made a twitter account back in 2009 and started posting video, because I have a background in video editing. That’s what I did, I built a little website for fun. I was still in school. I build that channel, and then it became a website where you had a database. You click on one player, and you could see 6-7 videos on them.
And then Mark Edwards from Hockey Prospect DM’d, which became text messages, which became phone calls. He wanted me to get involved with this company, and I was like “sure.” At first, I was only going to be a video guy, doing exactly what I did before, but we started talking and he was like “you kind of know what you’re talking about.” So I started scouting, but learning from the other guys on the staff too, which was the key, because you have learn every year. Every year, my role got bigger and bigger and bigger, and last year, I was promoted to Director of Scouting, and here we are.
Hockey Prospect gave 19 “A” Grades, which they reserve for players they believe are first round worthy. Is this more of an average draft?
I would categorize it as an average-to-good draft. It’s tough to be a bad draft when you have Connor Bedard at the top. Depth wise, it’s probably not as good as people might think it is. When we did our list, let’s say the top 18 we like it, and then it drops big time. It drops, and there’s a lot of question marks with players until 45-50. They have good potential, but there’s just question marks next to their name. If we rank a guy like 85, and we have time for him, that’s pretty good. But an NHL team that ranks a guy 85, they’re not drafting them. Usually their 7th round pick will be a guy that’s around 75 on their list.
One thing people don’t really realize is that teams don’t go to the draft with 200 players on their list. They have a very strict list, sometimes 80 players, sometimes 90, but not a whole lot.
The Avalanche pick 27th in this year’s NHL draft. One of the things people always talk about is trading down. At 27, do you think you’d probably get a similar player if you traded down to say, 35 or 40? Is it all kind of bunched up in that area?
Yeah, unless there’s a guy at 27 that they have ranked really high that is still there. Let’s say they have a guy ranked 13th on their list and he’s there at 27, they’ll take him. But if a lot of their guys keep getting picked, and they get to 27, then they could get an extra pick, maybe two second round picks for the 27th, I think you’d probably do it, because the range of players from 25-50 is similar. You could argue a guy could be ranked 27th, and another scout would say they have him 47th. It’s the same thing every draft, by the way. Once you get to the late 20’s, it’s all similar.
I know some NHL Draft meetings can get heated with scouts fighting for the guys they really like. Are your draft ranking meetings the same?
Oh yeah. There’s disagreement with players, but at the end of the day, we work as a team. Some guys that are ranked low, I’ll say I wish we could put them higher, but at the end of the day, someone has to make a decision and that’s it. You want to hear everyone’s opinion on it. Sometimes, someone will have an opinion and it doesn’t make any sense and I 100% disagree with it, but that’s what we want. We want opinions, we want our scouts to have opinions. We don’t want everyone to have the same opinion. First of all, it’s wrong. It’s impossible to have the same opinion on every player. I don’t want to hear my opinion when I ask for their opinion.
Who are some of the guys you really like in the first round that you would “bang the table” for?
Definitely, two of my favorite players in the draft are Dmitriy Simashev and Danil But. Banging the table for them, if I’m working for an NHL team, with the Russian factor and all of that combined, I would have to interview the player. I might love him on the ice, but then interview them, and you’re less sure. And sometimes kids will have bad interviews, and five years later it doesn’t matter whatsoever. I just love watching them and I think they bring something very unique.
Ryan Leonard would be someone I would bang the table for. He’s a playoff guy you win with. Bradley Nadeau is another guy, but not too high in the first round. Often the guys you bang the table for are more later in the draft. Easton Cowan from London. We have him 29th. Often, the guys that you really want to push are more of energy type forwards that can play any type of role. They have a high compete level, a playoff type performer. That’d be some of the guys.
If I look at the top of the draft, we have Leo Carlsson at #2. I definitely would bang the table for him over Fantilli. That’s one guy I would be really pushing for if I worked for Anaheim. There would be some pretty good discussion.
You mentioned Nadeau. The Avalanche have not been afraid to draft players in the first round from lower leagues like the BCHL. How do you, as a scout, evaluate players in those lower leagues, where they’re maybe far and away the best player on their team, as opposed to Major Junior?
Nadeau is a tough one to evaluate because he played in a weaker league, and he played on a ridiculous team. I think they lost 5 games all year. You can compare him to previous BCHL players, so you can get a feel a bit for what he can bring to the table, and how he compares to other guys from the past, and how did those guys do at the next level. I saw Nadeau play last summer at the Canada U-18 camp, and I was a bit surprised he didn’t make Canada for the Hlinka tournament. He outplayed some pretty good talent over there.
I always call it data. Everything you see all year is data you can put in your head. At the end of the year, you have to make a final decision. And also when I do my rankings, I have to be passionate about a player. If I work for a team, I don’t want to draft a player I’m not passionate about. Nadeau is a guy I was really passionate about. Other guys that rank below him, I’m a bit less passionate about, even if they play in a bigger league.
How much weight do you value those international tournaments, or do you try not to put too much weight into them over the course of a full season?
The Hlinka tournament is the first tournament of the year, and we always say this is the most overrated tournament of the year. You watch it, it’s fun, it’s information, but there’s not a single scout out there that says in their rankings meetings that “I want this guy ranked there because he was great in the Hlinka tournament.” That’s 9 months ago. It’s just a small part of the evaluation.
The problem is the last U-18 tournament, there’s also some recency bias sometimes. Sometimes a player is just rising, rising, rising and it’s perfectly normal for them to have a good tournament at the end of the year, but it’s one tournament. If a player just played 80+ games, and had a bad tournament at the end of the year, you can’t penalize him too much for that.
Do you think your list is closer to what an NHL teams list might look like?
I think philosophy wise, I think we are very close to what an NHL team would do, but every team has a very different list. My dream is that NHL teams get forced to release their list after the draft, because I think people would freak out. If you see internet lists, they all look the same. We release ours, and everyone thinks it’s clickbait, but it’s not clickbait. It’s our opinion, and we don’t really look at the other lists. NHL teams, their lists are way out there. The stories I hear. Guys that I liked in the first round in the past, I was told some teams had them as a “no draft.” It’s very different. I think we have similar philosophy to NHL teams, as far as who we like, what works in the NHL and what doesn’t work for players, but I feel like if you would compare different NHL team lists, it would be all over the map.
Defensemen like Oliver Bonk and Tanner Molendyk didn’t produce a ton in Juniors this year. What do you see as their offensive upside, and do you have a concern they get stuck in between where they don’t have enough offense to take that step?
I don’t really see them as PP1 guys. Bonk has a good shot from the point, which Molendyk doesn’t have, but Molendyk has the incredible skating, and he can rush pucks, which Bonk can’t really do. They’re different, but their upside is very similar. Both guys have enough to be top-4 defensemen. I think Bonk is a lot safer just because of his size, but Molendyk has the attributes that smaller defensemen need to have, with the skating and the compete level. Molendyk at the beginning of the year, I didn’t see that high-end compete level from him, and he’s not going to play if he doesn’t compete. Those smaller defensemen, they have to pretty much be perfect out there. Molendyk got back to normal, but for some reason, the first month he was playing a bit too soft. We like him a lot. I tried really hard to have him in our top 32, but it was not meant to happen.
What attributes do you think most teams prioritize when looking for a player at the NHL Draft?
I think most teams would agree hockey sense, compete, skill, and skating, in that order.
Is there anything you’ve reflected on over the years, that maybe you feel like you need to focus more on in the future with players you liked that didn’t pan out?
It goes back to philosophy of scouting. Let’s talk about smaller defensemen. I wrote an article about this in November. You have to look at what works, and what doesn’t work. Watching the NHL playoffs, I saw smaller defensemen really struggle, unless they’re Cale Makar. A lot of the smaller defensemen were really struggling. I saw the NHL Draft from 2020, the number of defensemen under 6′ getting drafted really decreased. It went from 18-20 per draft in 2016-18, then it dropped to 10 per draft. So, it’s one thing I had to change. Back then, I was really pushing for those small defensemen, but now, teams don’t really look at them as much as they did before. That’s a philosophy I had to change here. It’s a bit Tampa Bay Lightning blueprint, with their big defense, and now every team that wins the Cup has some big defensemen on the back-end.
Looking at the position the Avalanche are in, they didn’t have a pick until round six last year. They have one pick before round five this year. If you were in that scout room, would you still be swinging for the fences, or would you focus on maybe going the safer route and finding more of a sure bet as an NHL player?
I would go the safer route, because it really hurts a team (to miss). Last years draft, you might not get any players that play in the NHL. They’re all late picks, they’re all projects. And then this year, you don’t have many picks. They kind of need to get an NHL’er here. It really hurts franchises when they don’t have incoming prospects coming up, or good prospects that can challenge for a roster spot on a team. I really believe any team, they need to have a youth movement every year. They need one or two rookies per season, but some new blood, some new energy on your team. If you have 2-3 straight drafts where you don’t get any legit NHL prospects out of it, it’s really hard.
The Avalanche weren’t going to win the lottery, but now it’s impacting them, because Connor Bedard will be in the division. Do you put him in the McDavid category or is he below that?
I would say a half-step below. Let’s say Auston Matthews level. He’s awesome, and he’s improved so much since we first saw him two years ago, and he was great two years ago. His skating has become quite good. Also, he competes hard. His compete level now is really good. He’s tough to play against now, and he’s tenacious, and all that makes him a very, very high-end player. Not much weakness. I don’t think he’s in the McDavid class, but I think he’s right behind him.