I can't remember in which thread, but someone a little while back asked about the role video plays in Sabres scouting/how scouting has changed for Buffalo since Pegs bought the team, and I wanted to post this article from THN (February, 2012) in response. I figured there was enough to discuss in it that it warranted its own thread. (Bolded portions are just clips I found particularly interesting.)
By Adam Proteau
When word leaked nearly 10 years ago the Buffalo Sabres were employing videotape to help scout players, the hockey world erupted in a sea of leers and sneers. The idea that a camera lens could take the place of experienced hockey-watching eyeballs was anathema to the scouting community and many in the media who lambasted ownership and management for the move.
However, as is the case any time a deep tradition is challenged by change inside or outside professional sports, the hatred of Buffalo’s choice to incorporate video scouting into their organization arose from a place of distrust and misunderstanding. And considering the Sabres have produced the last three American League rookies of the year – Nathan Gerbe in 2008-09, Tyler Ennis in 09-10, and Luke Adam last season – as well as numerous youngsters on the NHL roster, including 2010 Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers, even the biggest cynic has to admit the franchise is doing something right.
One of the biggest myths about Buffalo’s video scouting was that, under former owner Thomas Golisano, they jettisoned their most experienced talent-watchers and instead were using video as the sole method to judge a prospect’s worth. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Sabres director of scouting Kevin Devine. “When three of our main guys left, it was painted by a reporter as us having gutted the organization and going strictly to video scouting,” he said of veteran scouts Jim Benning, Don Luce, and Terry Martin, all of whom departed within a couple years of Golisano purchasing the team in 2003. “But those guys just got better opportunities. And I can’t remember if we’ve ever drafted anybody totally on video. One of our scouts always had a chance to see a player we were interested in We’d see that player two or three times at least.”
That said, there is no getting around the reason GM Darcy Regier came up with the video angle – and not just because Golisano had entered the ownership picture. They were experimenting with video before Golisano came into the picture and bought the franchise out of bankruptcy.
But although Golisano was an owner who spent well above the salary cap minimum, his budget for the amateur side was not nearly so big, forcing management to expand the process by a significant degree. “Desperation is the mother of invention,” Regier said. “If you don’t have the desperation, you won’t have the innovation. If you have the resources and everyone’s doing something a certain way, you have no reason to change.
“In our case, it was an owner essentially saying to us, ‘Can you get this done with these resources?’ and if myself and other wanted to keep their jobs, the answer to that question was ‘Yes, we can get it done.’”
The early days of the Sabres’ video scouting process were clunky, inconvenient, and clouded by doubt. Today, the Sabres have video uploaded to computer servers, or make them available on DVDs. But in the early 2000s, they were dealing with low-quality VHS tapes that had to travel hundreds of miles back to Buffalo.
Just as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane faced an uproar from his long-time scouts when he went the Moneyball route, Regier had to persuade his development staff to be open to a new way of doing business. And a few of them weren’t easily persuaded. “Some people didn’t believe in it,” Regier said. “Some people left because of it. Whenever you start a process of what I would call drastic change, you have to expect to be met with resistance. There was a lot of ‘This is stupid,’ or ‘This won’t work.’ And so the first step was a credit to the people who did try it with an open mind.”
There were and are valid concerns about the video process in identifying a prospect worthy of a team’s time and financial investment. For instance, as the camera follows the puck, it can’t simultaneously capture the effort a player behind the play puts into getting back into the thick of things. It also can’t focus on a player’s interactions with his coach and/or teammates on the bench.
But Regier saw those blind spots early on and moved quickly to address them. Although the Sabres would not answer questions about the specifics of their scouting system, they did say the purpose of their scouts’ in person visits was to look at a prospect’s intangibles. They could use video to augment their appreciation of a player in a way the budget simply no longer allowed.
Regier realized the pros of video outweighed its cons. He knew you could only watch junior and college players for 25 weeks of each year, maybe 27 if they went on a good playoff run. He knew scouts’ memories and notebooks were anything but objective and could warp and distort over time, but games on video could be poured over and returned to with no possibility of subjective misinterpretation.
So when fortune smiled on the Sabres last winter and Golisano sold the team to rabid hockey fan and billionaire Terry Pegula, Regier didn’t stop doing what he’d been doing for nearly a decade. Yes, Pegula immediately made it clear the hockey development side of business would receive a much bigger budget, but the franchise still utilizes video. OK, not quite to the same degree: The amateur scouting staff was at skeleton levels by the end of the Golisano Era, yet before Pegula’s first anniversary of finalizing his purchase of the team, the amateur scout total had nearly doubled from 9 to 17.
In fact, in many ways, now that the Sabres are back to having a full complement of amateur scouts – make that “more than full,” as they currently employ as many amateur scouts as any other team in the league – the rest of the NHL has been catching up to them in the video scouting department. Now, there is no more scorn or ridicule directed at Buffalo’s way for taking advantage of technological advances before all the other teams did. Every team employs video in the scouting process to some degree.
Without a doubt, the process of losing good hockey men such as Luce, Martin, and Benning was not an ideal one for Regier and the organization. But just like the video process, the world isn’t perfect and not all the league’s GMs have the same resources with which to work. And although these days Regier has stopped being one of the league’s “have not” GMs, there is still a challenge for him that comes with video scouting. Only now it’s not at all about using video to make the most of a finite development budget.
Now it’s about using a virtually limitless development budget to make the most of ever-advancing technology. “We continue to be a work in progress,” Regier said of the change from a budget-conscious owner to one for whom money is no object. “It’s just a different type of progress that revolves around taking something we felt we were beginning to understand with fewer resources. Now you have more resources, so you want to turn that into a greater advantage.”
It's kind of amazing to me that the video-scout system took so long to catch on in the NHL. This method is around 40 years old in the NFL.
The camera focus is easy to get over. The NFL had the same issues early on, then went to higher angle, wider view perspectives.
NFL scouts use the film and personal attendance hand-in-hand. It's hard to say which comes first. The scout goes to a game to look at a few players. A different one sticks out, so he goes back and looks at the film, and past films. Then he focuses in when attending the next game for that team.
Or, the scout sees something on film first, then focuses in at the next game.
The video also allows for rechecking in the off-season.
It's a good, time proven system, and I'm glad the Sabres are using it.