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Conversation with Grant Sonier

Earlier today we had the chance to speak with former NHL scout Grant Sonier, who has been working as ESPN.com’s NHL Draft expert in recent years. Sonier has an impressive resume and was recently hired as the general manager of the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Sonier Resume 2We asked him about his thoughts on the upcoming draft class, as well as some ins and outs of the hockey scouting world. It’s a lengthy Q&A with Sonier, but it’s definitely worth the time to read his opinions on all things NHL Draft as we are now 11 days away from the draft taking place in Newark, N.J.

Smashville 24/7: How would you describe this 2013 draft class?
Grant Sonier: It’s no secret that this draft has so much to depth it. You’re looking at what teams have coming forth in the draft in terms of picks, and there should be a lot of excited teams. In all my years of experience I’ve ever seen – maybe the 1985 one might rival it – but this year’s draft not only has depth in the forward position and has depth later on in the defense position, but there are really high-end quality players.

I put out a Top 50 for ESPN Insider and honestly there are players low on that list that normally you would be happy to get in the first round. I think a lot of teams understand that and I think a lot of teams are excited about the draft. With that I think there will be a high number of timeouts in this year’s draft because I think there’s going to be some movement. I call it a shotgun draft because I think it could happen early where somebody pulls a player that is way lower on everybody else’s list and that could create a little bit of a frenzy.

I know the Nashville fans must be excited – not that they are picking fourth because that usually means you didn’t have a great year, but boy oh boy are they ever going to get a dynamite player.

Do you see any comparisons between this draft class and the 2003 class heading into the draft?
You can never say that these guys drafted this year are going to be as good (as 2003) because once the draft is over there is a great deal of development, a learning curve, and it depends on situations of which teams drafted a certain player. But there is an opportunity for a number of players to be drafted this year and come right into the NHL next year and have an impact. You’re seeing more and more of that, so I think a pretty high number of players could come in and have an impact next year; if not next year, another year of development for these young gentlemen, they are going to come in and take the NHL by storm. I really believe that.

Joe Sakic told The Denver Post last night that the Avalanche will not take Seth Jones. Do you believe him or see this as posturing?
I’d have to say they are tipping their hat for posturing purposes. I don’t know why they would tip their hat. I know some other pro leagues they’ll announce their selection prior to the draft just so it takes the circus out of it.

It’s been deemed a three-man draft but in my mind it’s a one-man draft. Nathan MacKinnon is hands down the best player in this draft. I’ve never wavered from that. I’ve felt that from the beginning of the year. There would be games I’d go watch Halifax play where Jonathan Drouin was a better player than MacKinnon, but as a pro I see MacKinnon beings hands down the best player.

What’s interesting is that I really believe Seth Jones could fall to No. 4. If you go off what I believe, I think MacKinnon goes first to Colorado, Florida then takes Drouin and then I can see where Tampa Bay might not take Jones; I could see Barkov going third to Tampa. A guy like Seth Jones, who may be in the minds of the Nashville staff as the top player in this draft – they may very well get the player that they think is the No. 1 player in the 4-hole, and that’s just how crazy this draft might be.

So I assume you believe Colorado would be making the right choice by taking MacKinnon over Jones?
I do, then again that’s my humble opinion. I’ve seen all the players like every other regular scout. My job with ESPN is a great job because I’m scouting like I’m an NHL team but I don’t have to be right, but I take a lot of pride in putting in a lot of great deal of thought into it. I feel I have a pretty good handle on this year’s draft and I can just never waver from picking MacKinnon first overall.

People always bring the argument of do you take the best player or draft for team needs. I would suggest you take the best player because players you draft are simply one thing – they are assets. You draft the best asset and if it doesn’t work out, you trade that asset to someone who thinks highly of that asset and you get something for him.

I don’t think you can factor in that Jones is a defenseman. You can look at the history of defensemen taken high that have had some turbulent spots in their career. We drafted Jay Bouwmeester third overall when I was in Florida. He’s been a wonderful pro player in the NHL but has not lived up to expectations – and that’s not Jay’s fault. We brought him into the league as an 18-year-old and you have to be an awful special player to be an impact defenseman as an 18-year-old.

With Nashville at No. 4, everyone expects them to draft one of Jones, MacKinnon, Drouin, Aleksander Barkov or Valeri Nichushkin. Of those five, who is the best leader? Who is the most driven to be great in the NHL?
Again, it’s the reason why he’s No. 1 on my list. It’s MacKinnon, hands down. You look at what happened to this kid – he gets selected by Team Canada and both he and Drouin go to the World Juniors. For whatever reason – I’m not questioning Hockey Canada’s decision – they put MacKinnon on the fourth line and he accepted the role, took it like a pro, never said anything bad about his experience. Drouin was given a spot on the top two lines and had a great tournament. Even then I didn’t leave thinking Drouin was better than MacKinnon for the draft.

Nathan MacKinnon has special, special qualities. I’m not going to say Sidney Crosby qualities; he gets too much of that analogy because they’re from the same hometown and played in some of the same spots and were first overall picks in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But MacKinnon is already a grown, mature adult when it comes to the way he carries himself. His leadership qualities and his pushback on the ice when the games get tough and the grit level increases, he’s always in the mix and never shies away from trying to score a goal or from trying to win a one-on-one battle. That more than anything is the reason why he’s the No. 1 player in the draft for me, aside from his elite skating, his dynamic balance and hand-eye coordination.

There are two wild cards. I’ve watched Aleksander Barkov play now for three years; he played as a double underage and we all marveled at the skill and his size and his ability to produce, but there’s always been a little asterisk on his skating. It has improved incrementally year to year and his skating skill will have to improve a little bit. He’s been playing with men the last two years and is physically ready to play in the NHL, but with a little more explosiveness to his skating he could end up being a star player.

The other wild card is Valeri Nichushkin. In the February tournament he was hands down the best player in the world. Based on that tournament alone he would have been the No. 1 pick if no one had gone to watch his other games. The Russian factor, the number of players that have been drafted high and exited back to the KHL – that’s always a factor. But he has pure talent, size, skating ratio, the ability to play a big man’s game. If he’s committed like he says he is, he could be a star. He’s been compared to Evgeni Malkin, but I saw Malkin as an underage and, for me, Nichushkin is not Malkin. He does not have the same offensive hockey sense that Malkin has, but this kid has the ability to come in and put up some numbers.

Some fans in Nashville are debating whether the Predators should draft Nichushkin at No. 4. For this individual alone, would the KHL factor scare you if you were an NHL GM?
Yes and no. You can’t be oblivious to it because it has happened so often – Alexander Radulov is probably the freshest one but Nikita Filatov a couple years ago and Pavel Vorobiev from Chicago. Ultimately when you interview these kids you want to get a sense that they really truly want to play in the NHL, and over the course of time there are mitigating circumstances – the player’s unhappy or isn’t as ready as the team thought.

I could care less what the passport says. I worked with the Los Angeles Kings when they drafted Anze Kopitar and I was a huge supporter of the player. There were questions whether we should be drafting a player from Slovenia. My answer was what I just told you – I could care less what his passport says. He’s a damn good hockey player and L.A. is lucky to have him.

From your experience what are these last days and weeks like for teams, specifically the GMs and scouts?
As the year begins, a good scouting staff will start the list for the following year – an underage list, which isn’t very detailed, it’s just identifying players. As you go along you have your midseason meetings where they bring all the scouts together and have their lists. Then you have your final end-of-year meetings – some of them are before the combine, some of them after to factor in what came of the player interviews. But there’s still a great deal of work going on, especially at the top of that draft. Someone could be taken fourth or fifth overall that sends this thing into a tailspin.

Teams right now would be bringing in players that they think could be their first pick, just to get to know them better, take them out for meals to see how they interacted with the public, see how they interact with the media – all little things to give you a better snapshot of the player. At the end of the day it goes back to the body of work on the ice. Unless the kid is a criminal or any issue that will impact his development, for the most part it is the body of work you watched on the ice.

Even right until draft time teams will get in early and hold any additional interviews with players, there will be some hard-line questions asked. I think what a good general manager will do as this process is unfolding is, he’s not going to change the list but he’s going to challenge the scouts and talk about things like character over hockey sense over skill, which one weighs out more.

The good teams have identified what they want in a player, where the player falls in terms of ranking on the list. It’s a real interesting process.

Aside from on-ice ability, what are two or three things scouts look for in prospects?
Just how they carry themselves, how they interact with their teammates. If they are leaders on the ice are they yelling at players or directing them? Are they tapping a guy on the bottom when he makes a mistake? Are they going to the goaltender when he makes a big save? Little things that would suggest that they get it.

Let’s be honest, you’re talking about 17 year olds and in a lot of cases these kids have been put into this situation where they are being scouted on these elite teams. There are kids out there that are playing at a high level but aren’t sure if they want to be hockey players.

The problem with hockey is that we have to project. It’s the most key word you have in scouting – you have to project. You can take a kid like Nikita Zadorov, who is 6-foot-4 and already 240 pounds; there is very little projection on the physical side. But some of these kids are 6-feet tall and 165 pounds, and you have to try and project a kid when he’s going to be 195 or 200 pounds. That’s the real knack in scouting, is to be able to project and pick up on all those little things you look for.

If you’re in the rink and you see a scout down by the glass for half a period, that’s a scout that wants to see the kid’s eyes when he’s in the corner; he wants to see the intensity in his game; he wants to see if the player is really bearing down. To use a term someone used to use all the time, there are two types of players – the type of player where if there’s a loose puck that will lead with his stick and reach for the puck, or there’s a type of player that is a nose-to-balls player who, opposed to reaching, drops his nose down towards his midsection to win the battle and get that puck. If I’m scouting I want guys who play nose-to-balls hockey.

If you have a lineup full of character you’re probably going to win more games than you lose.

The other day I was reading an ESPN.com article on how baseball scouts factor in the eyeball test of young players – whether or not they have a strong handshake or possess sloped shoulders compared to square shoulders. Do things like that come into play in the world of hockey scouting?
No question. I’ll give you an example. Colby Armstrong played with Red Deer of the WHL and was a first-round draft pick. Every team brings their strength coach and what they do is, the player comes in and takes his shirt off and gets measured and they ask the player to stand front, stand side, stand back. The teams that are really on the ball have their strength coach there taking pictures, looking for body composition. To this day, Colby Armstrong is the skinniest kid I’ve ever seen – skinny as in the width of his shoulders. Our strength coach said, ‘You know what? I don’t think this kid is ever going to be able to develop his physique to the point where he’s going to be a durable hockey player. Ironically, his career has been riddled with injuries.

Now, there are exceptions to everything. Milan Lucic has something called Scheuermann’s
Disease. His last three vertebrae are curved and it looks like he has a little bit of a humpback. What’s interesting about him is the final three vertebrae are curved and he’s a little bit slumped over. He’s 6-foot-3 but the rest of his body is actually proportionate to a 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 human being. You could look at that and say we can’t draft this guy because he has a humpback. Well, a lot of teams wish they would have stepped up and drafted him based on the way he plays.

You really need some expertise in that area and I don’t have that expertise, but there is no doubt when you’re shaking a kid’s hand and he’s got a limp handshake or is a frail-looking kid or talks like it, that might scare you. At the end of the day there’s still that learning curve or development curve. I’ve seen it right before my eyes. You bring a kid in after you draft him, you send him to development and see what he looks like. He comes back a year later and it’s like he’s a completely different person. Jimmy Howard might be the best example. He was kind of a pudgy goaltender but he took his craft seriously and went to University of Maine; I remember seeing him the next time in street clothes and I could hardly recognize him. He transformed his body.

What it comes down to is how much work a player is going to put into it and the sacrifices they’ll make to play in the NHL.

Is it harder to project defensemen compared to forwards?
I think it is because it’s a harder position. It’s also tough to project a goaltender. You really don’t know what you got in a goaltender until he’s 25 years old. It is harder to project a defenseman simply because you’re on defense all the time. But at the end of the day, 30 coaches will tell you that forwards have to play defense in the NHL no matter how skilled offensively you are. It is harder to project defensemen, though, because they are going to be facing the best forwards in the world. Any given shift you are in defense mode and don’t know what you’re up against. There are a lot of skilled players out there. How you can project a defenseman comes back to whether or not the player has character or the wherewithal to put the time in to become a better defenseman.

It’s going to be a hell of a draft. I know the fans in Nashville must be really excited and one thing that is safe in saying is that they’re going to draft one heck of a player at the No. 4 spot.

 
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  1. [...] SMASHVILLE 24/7: Ryan Porth interviews former NHL scout and ESPN draft analyst Grant Sonier on what to expect at this year’s draft. [...]