Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jarmo Kekalainen: Amateur Scouting and Sustained Success

The Columbus Blue Jackets hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen is probably one of the most intriguing sports executive hirings to me in the last little while. I've been a fan for quite some time. I don't think I really need to do a profile on his backstory, you can find that plenty of places. Like here and here. I'm going to bend this hiring to both reflect a bit back on Jarmo's past performance, and expand a bit on some of the processes involved in building a team that can sustain competitiveness.

It was in 2009 that I started getting really heavy into the NHL draft, right about the time the Oilers really started to stink it up for a prolonged period of time. I devoured all the draft stuff I could that year.

The week before the draft in 2009, NHL Network was airing a bunch of old draft specials —behind-the-scenes looks into the drafting processes with a few different teams throughout the years. This was when I really began to become transfixed with what went on behind the curtain. How different teams made different decisions, how they approached drafting, what they wanted to emphasize. Obviously, they aren't going to show you everything in these draft specials, teams have to maintain a certain veil of secrecy around their proceedings — it's just good practice.

I really, really enjoyed the Blues one — it took viewers through the process of the 2007 draft when St. Louis drafted Lars Eller, Ian Cole and David Perron in the first round, a pretty damn successful first round. I fully realize it's pretty easy for a TV show to edit and manipulate things, and things might not be as they seem, but I was instantly drawn to Jarmo in the Blues' special. He was in charge of the amateur draft in St. Louis (as he had been since 2002) and ran his meetings in a very even-handed manner with a business-like and thoughtful approach. There wasn't much ambiguous, gut feeling kind of proclamations going around from him. He seemed very sure of himself and commanded a sense of respect. The type of guy that internalizes his external environment and processes it before he speaks, doesn't use any rash judgements or say anything irrational. A very measured and sure-handed guy. His interactions with Larry Pleau and John Davidson seemed very professional and I always felt deep down he deserved to work in bigger and better things in the hockey world. He was a bit of an obscure figure to keep an eye on, but I still did nonetheless, even when he went over to be the general manager of Jokerit in Finland's SM-liiga. I don't really want to go on too much, because he hasn't achieved anything of consequence yet, but I've been championing this guy as a GM candidate for a while now, and he finally has his shot.

I've embedded the draft special at the very end of the post, if anybody is interested in the hour-long behind-the-scenes looked that got me hooked on the world of prospects

The process of constructing a team geared towards prolonged and sustainable success is of great interest to me, and seeing the models from which successful teams were built always grabs my attention, regardless of the sport. May it be Andrew Friedman and the Rays, Bill Belichick and the Patriots, or Ken Holland and the Red Wings (among many others). From what I've observed, I think that Jarmo seems to demonstrate a pretty good grasp of part of that model.

I took another look at Jarmo's drafting history in St. Louis, and it's pretty spectacular. He simply doesn't miss on first rounders. While you might say that you should be picking NHL players with your 1st rounders, that isn't always the case. He assumed the role of assistant general manager and chief amateur scout in 2002 and has since picked Backes, Stempniak, Nikitin, Polak, Oshie, Johnson, Berglund, Eller, Cole, Perron, Pietrangelo, Schwartz and Tarasenko in the draft. His draft history in the first round is astounding — his only bust is goaltender Marek Schwartz in 2004 (and goalies are known to be very volatile prospects). You could say he disappointed with Johnson, but there wasn't a lot of leeway there; as he was the consensus #1 and St. Louis was in the precarious position of having a severely dwindling fanbase at the time. Almost the entirety of St. Louis' current core was acquired by means of the draft; and while they rode hot goaltending a lot of last year, a lot of that hard work on the amateur side is coming to fruition and paying off in a big way. Jarmo supplied the Blues with terrific personnel.

I'll break down St. Louis' current roster below. Obviously, Doug Armstrong has done a lot of great work with key acquisitions(and that can't be understated), along with the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, but the cupboards needed to be stocked before those opportunities presented themselves. I've bolded the Jarmo picks. (All players listed in alphabetical order.)

David Backes - acquired via 2003 draft, 2nd round, 62nd overall
Patrik Berglund - acquired via 2006 draft, 1st round, 25th overall. Pick acquired in trade-up scenario with New Jersey from 30th overall, acquired in Doug Weight to Carolina trade.
Matt D'Agostini - acquired via trade with Montreal for Aaron Palushaj, pick originally acquired in first-round trade down scenario in 2007 with San Jose
Jamie Langenbrunner - acquired via free agency in summer of 2011
Andy McDonald - acquired via trade with Anaheim for Doug Weight in 2007
Scott Nichol - acquired via free agency in summer of 2011
T.J. Oshie - acquired via 2005 draft, 1st round, 24th overall
David Perron - acquired via 2007 draft, 1st round, 26th overall
Ryan Reaves - acquired via 2005 draft, 5th round, 156th overall
Jaden Schwartz - acquired via 2010 draft, 1st round, 14th overall
Vladamir Sobotka - acquired via trade with Boston for David Warsofsky
Alexander Steen - acquired via trade with Toronto with Carlo Coliacovo for Lee Stempniak
Chris Stewart - acquired via trade with Colorado with Kevin Shattenkirk + 2nd for Erik Johnson + 1st
Vladamir Tarasenko - acquired via 2010 draft, 1st round, 16th overall

Ian Cole - acquired via 2007 draft, 1st round, 18th overall
Barrett Jackman - accquired via 1999 draft, 1st round, 15th overall
Alex Pietrangelo - acquired via 2008 draft, 1st round, 4th overall
Roman Polak - acquired via 2004 draft, 6th round, 180th overall
Wade Redden - acquired via free agency in winter of 2013
Kris Russell - acquired via trade with Columbus for Nikita Nikitin
Kevin Shattenkirk - acquired via trade with Colorado with Chris Stewart + 2nd for Erik Johnson + 1st

Jarsolav Halak - acquired via trade with Montreal for Lars Eller + Ian Schultz
Brian Elliot - acquired via free agency in summer 2011

It's pretty astounding to see the only moves that don't have Jarmo's fingerprints around them in some shape or form are Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol (two fourth-liners picked up in free agency to plug holes), Andy McDonald, Barrett Jackman (previous scouting regime), Wade Redden and Brian Elliot. McDonald and Jackman are obviously both important players, but I doubt anybody would be arguing they constitute as core. That's six out of 23 players that weren't a direct or secondary product of solid drafting. That's a fair amount.

That leads me into thinking that the draft is pretty damn important. And it might be something teams should be focusing a little more on, and dedicating a few more resources towards. A terrific amateur scouting director and staff stocks the cupboards and brings you top-sixers and top-4 d-men with first-round picks, along with a complement of prospects with other picks. The difference of hiring 10 extra area scouts for $750,000/yr total might erase itself after finding just a few more diamonds in the rough. It seems after that, with some shrewd trading and a few minor free agent signings you can get yourself a pretty damn good team.

I also came across some interesting quotes from Aaron Portzline regarding Jarmo's drafting philosophy earlier today:

To me, this is some great insight into looking at what makes a good amateur player a good pro. Looking at the players he has drafted, it seems like they seem to fit that mold pretty well to a tee. It seems to me that a strong vision, as such, is required to succeed at the draft along with the commitment to stick to those principles. The interesting part of that quote to me is about NHL speed being derivative of "thinking the game." This infers speed isn't necessarily how fast you can get to point A to point B, but how fast you can get to point A to point B with your brain firing on all cylinders. It's why a player like Colton Gillies is replacement-level at best even though he possesses all the raw tools in the world. It's why Chris Tanev is better than Keaton Ellerby.

I know it's easy to say that what I'm laying out is pretty obvious. Draft well and ensure yourself future success. Who doesn't know that? But it really does rings true. Far too often, we see teams deviate from this path, by a lot. I also tend to think Jarmo isn't riding the odds and getting lucky a bunch of times. In 2007, when Eller, Cole and Perron were drafted respectively. Edmonton also had three first-round picks that year when Prendergast ran their draft and decided to go with Gagner, Alex Plante and Riley Nash. Ironically, all those Blues' picks were available at the times the Oilers selected.

It should go without saying that I'm not saying this is some magic formula to fielding a competitive team — the purpose of the post is moreso to underscore the importance of the draft and how truly integral it can be to an organization's overall success and structure. Drafting is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit an extremely important one. For your entire front office to possess strong leadership and a clear vision of what they want is paramount to success. If you can draft like the Blues have and win the majority of your trades by a margin of 55-45, over time, the trends are likely going to favor you. Finishing with 109 points in the standings last year, good for second in the West, and still entering this year with the most cap space in the league ($20 million!!), is a testament to Davidson, Armstrong, and Jarmo constructing and maintaining an organizational philosophy that strikes the delicate balance of patience without passiveness.

Jarmo's not going to be able to do it all by himself and solely through the draft, but he has a longtime,  and extremely knowledgeable hockey man in John Davidson to help him navigate the waters in Columbus. It's the leadership and defined organizational philosophy that he brings that will hopefully bring the Blue Jackets to respectability. He also had an interesting quote on an interview with HNIC radio today speaking about "advanced stats":
"I think it's a great tool for support and I look for the facts from stats to see a pattern and confirm something that I've seen when I observe the players on the ice. It's certainly not the main tool I rely on. It's hard to keep stats on those intangibles I just mentioned." 
That's almost exactly on point with the philosophy I've found myself leaning towards as of late. I might find myself rooting a little bit for the Blue Jackets now for the first time ever.

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