“Now we’re just looking at the top-end Russians. If we knew they were in these leagues over there we’d check them out, but we're not going to look for them.” - Western Conference scout.
When it comes to scouting talent spread throughout Russia, the lack of a transfer agreement has changed the plan of attack for some NHL teams.
Russian players especially have an option to go back home and play in the Kontinental League for more money than they’d get in the minor leagues in North America and this Plan B has led some NHL clubs to reassess how they manage their resources.
“It’s costly and time consuming,” said one scout, whose team no longer has a set of eyes based in Moscow. “It takes a lot out of you to go into Russia and look at Russian players; the flights and the time committed. Those energies can be used somewhere else.
“When you take on a trip to Russia, you’re taking your scout from North America out of the system for at least two weeks because he’s going over there and when he gets back he needs a couple of days off to get himself back to North American time. Depending on where you’re going over there, we’re talking wide-ranging time zone changes.”
Mind you, not all teams have withdrawn from the Russian Motherland. Some teams manage their European scouts in much the same way they manage their team in North America.
“So far, our situation is status quo,” said another scout, whose team is still firmly entrenched with a presence in Europe. “You have Sweden, Finland, Czech (Republic), Slovakia and Russia, that’s five different areas. You can throw Germany and Switzerland into the Czech/Slovakia area. So we have scouts in each of those areas. Over here you have three major junior and two USA areas basically and we have scouts in each of those.”
Obviously, the NHL teams feel much more comfortable with a Russian player who makes the move to North America in his early days because he’s showing he wants to play over here. In the 2008 draft, Evgeny Grachev was taken in the third round by the New York Rangers, but since then he’s joined the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario League, where he has posted 27 goals and 53 points in 39 games.
“He fell,” said one scout with a Western Conference team. “Teams are uncomfortable with taking a risk on these guys, but his game has really taken off and he’s starting to develop into a very good hockey player, so it looks like a great pick.”
For the teams that have scaled back their involvement in Russia, make no mistake; they still have scouts omnipresent throughout Europe. Those guys might pop into Russia to see a few players and then give a heads-up to the North American scouts when they come to do their check-up.
“Our head European scout ventures into Russia often, but he knows the guys will have to be high-end before we commit to them,” one scout said. “Even if you have a guy based in Russia, he doesn’t see the North American guys. He hears things through the grapevine and stuff, but you still need to go over there and see his players to compare them to the North American players and slot them in properly.”
So for now, a few teams have closed their bases in Russia and instead invested the time and money back in North America where you know the players have their sights set on one thing: the NHL.
“We lost a scout in Europe, but we gained one in North America,” one scout said. “There’s only so much in the pie for the budget and we decided to carve it up differently.”
But what if the transfer agreement was re-established with Russia and players were again able to flow freely to North America?
“Ultimately it’s up to the GM,” one scout noted. “You have to stay competitive, but there’s no point in throwing money away and that’s why we got out of there in the first place, because there was no agreement in place. If there was one in place, sure, I think we would go back.”
A Scout's Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.