Among the questions most commonly asked of me during my hockey travels are, "How does an NHL team acquire players? Who makes the decisions? How do they get information on the players?" The questions are asked by avid hockey fans, knowledgeable business people who do not have close ties to the game and by youngsters who are just old enough to have developed a passion about everything connected with hockey. The question is a good one and goes directly to the core of an NHL organization.
The primary job of an NHL GM is to hire the right people for his particular club. This starts with the coaching staff and extends to the players. In our scenario, it then extends to the people who will provide information on the players. These people will make recommendations as to which players the club should sign. These people collectively comprise the club's hockey operations department.
An NHL team has a number of different sources from which players can be obtained. Players in professional hockey may be obtained from other organizations via trades. At particular times of the year, they may be signed as free agents. The best young amateur players in the hockey world may be selected at the draft held each June.
Every GM must consider two major factors in a player transaction. One is the hockey issue: What are the abilities and potential of the players being discussed? The other is the technical part: How can the transaction be accomplished legally and how can it fit into the salary cap restrictions?
Every NHL club uses different titles to describe the roles of the people in hockey operations. Broadly speaking, the GM will get hockey advice from his scouts and technical advice from assistant GMs or directors of hockey administration.
The scouts are basically divided into two main departments. One is the group that spends the bulk of its time assessing talent in the amateur ranks throughout the hockey world. These people prepare game reports on all of the prospects and compile rating lists in preparation for each entry draft. Most scouts are assigned geographic responsibilities or are assigned particular leagues to watch. Senior members of the amateur scouting departments compare the top prospects in the various leagues and prepare overall lists. At the top of the pyramid is an individual who may be called assistant GM, director of player personnel, or director of scouting. This person makes the recommendations to the GM for each selection during the draft.
The second branch of each scouting department consists of those scouts who focus their attention on the various professional leagues. Pro scouts are usually assigned a specific group of NHL teams and their farm clubs. Besides looking for potential free agents, pro scouts maintain up to date rankings of all NHL and American League players who are the property of NHL teams. They are assisted in this regard by amateur scouts who submit reports on an ongoing basis of amateur players whose rights are owned by an NHL team. In this way, all players on NHL reserve lists are constantly being scouted by other NHL clubs. In recent years, this process has been followed just as closely in Europe as it has in North America.
The people who are on the technical side must provide accurate information on the contractual status of each professional player. GMs must know what classification of free agent a particular player will become and when he will become unrestricted. Financial concerns are paramount. A GM must know how much each player's contract will count toward the salary cap. He must also know the moves he is allowed to make with each player between the NHL team and the farm team.
Passions run deep among hockey scouts. Whether the issue is a player selection at the draft or a move at the trade deadline, scouts are fiercely competitive people - they all want their team to win. The only level of disagreement revolves around what moves best accomplish this objective. A good GM must be able to analyze his scouts as well as he can assess hockey players. By doing so, he is better able to make the crucial decisions of player acquisitions.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.