Las Vegas’s as-yet-unnamed NHL franchise hasn’t played a game but Shane Bowers has already taken a special place in team history. It happened in September in Omaha, Neb. Scott Luce had taken in the USHL showcase, an all-star game bringing together the top prospects eligible for the 2017 NHL entry draft. Luce booted up a brand-new laptop, opened some brand-new software, typed in Bowers’s name and hit send.
“I just thought, ‘This is the start of something—a long relationship,’” Luce says.
Not with Bowers specifically—even though he’s a highly touted talent. There’s no knowing if the teenager will ever sign an NHL contract, never mind one with the first major pro team in North America’s gaming capital. When Luce hit send, a 17-year-old from Halifax became the first player to appear in the expansion team’s scouting database. By season’s end Luce, Las Vegas’s amateur scouting director, will have seen upwards of 200 games, and viewed video of more. Each scout on his staff will have an equivalent workload. And after each game, each scout will file as many as a dozen reports on draft-eligible prospects. Wherever Bowers goes in the 2017 draft, he’ll be first-overall in Vegas, at least by date-and-time stamp.
Seasons are a fresh start for every team, but nothing is ever so new as Day One with an expansion franchise. Day One isn’t the drop of the puck. Day One is the issuing of team-authorized credit cards and laptops. “Just days before I was at that game in Omaha, we had been in meetings in Vegas, the first time that our staff had come together,” Luce says. “We were still developing our template for reports at that point, trying to establish a system that everyone on our staff is comfortable with. And really, we’re still working on that. We’ll be tweaking it as we go along this season.”
Few on Luce’s staff have worked together. “With just a couple of exceptions, they’ve never read each others’ reports,” he says. “They’ve never sat in a war room together. They’ve never put together a list. They’ve never been sat around the table on the floor at the draft together.”
The scouting side of a team’s operations isn’t static but in some cases it might seem so. A few teams keep their staffs together to a man not just year to year but rather from decade to decade—until Peter Chiarelli arrived in Edmonton, it seemed like the only turnover since the ‘90s occurred with retirement. When a team hires a new GM, he might make a few changes to his amateur staff, but nothing wholesale. Thus, Luce found himself in a position that few amateur scouting directors ever experience: Before he could search out talent on the ice he had to find the best available for the search party.
The 48-year-old Luce has been drawing NHL pay checks for about 20 years. In fact, he was raised in the league and knew the scouting life going back to grade school. His father, Don Luce, played 15 seasons in the NHL, most of them with Buffalo, where he was considered one of the league’s best defensive forwards. After his playing days, Don became an amateur scout, first with the Sabres and later with Philadelphia. He moved over to pro scouting with the Flyers and worked in the same capacity for the Maple Leafs last season. Like a restaurant’s newest hire shadowing a long-serving waiter, so did Luce effectively tail his father, tagging along to games, reading through his reports. “I got to see what scouting is about up close,” he says.
When asked what was the most important lesson of scouting life he taught his son, Don Luce doesn’t equivocate: “Don’t try to make a player,” he says. “Let him make himself. Let him prove to you that he deserves your attention. Do your homework. Know the player. Get a feel for him as a person and keep an open mind. I want to know the player off the ice. I like a player who has a sense of himself … some social skills. But also be willing to make an exception—nothing is absolute. The worst interview I ever sat in on was Peter Forsberg. You’d look pretty bad not drafting a Hall of Famer because he’s shy or awkward.”
Without prompting, the son echoes his father. “My first rule is: Don’t manufacture a player,” Scott Luce says. “If you go to a game and there isn’t a player there, don’t try to justify or rationalize your time watching the game.”
Don Luce has always been the very definition of Old School, and a lot of his ethos carries over to his son. “The question I would ask myself was: ‘Is this kid difficult to play against?’” Luce says. “That tells you not just about the talent that a player has but also his compete level … if he plays hard every shift or every game. Whether it’s the junior draft or on the pro side, you want the player who’s hard to play against.”
In his prime, Don represented a pretty miserable night for anyone who lined up against him. By Luce’s own admission, he himself wasn’t. A goaltender who played a couple of years in the OHL, mostly with Guelph, he could never win the No. 1 job—or, for that matter, secure the back-up role. Undrafted, he did make it into a few AHL games and added a couple of seasons in the East Coast league, but he describes his minor pro career as “marginal.”
When he stepped away from the game, Luce earned a business degree and worked in sales for a stick manufacturer in Wisconsin. “It took a while, but my passion for the game came back and I wound up landing a part-time area-scouting job for the Ottawa Senators,” he says. Back in the mid- and late-90s, a lot of young aspiring executives and scouts got their first breaks with the Senators organization—from GMs (New Jersey’s Ray Shero, Edmonton’s Peter Chiarelli and Columbus’s Jarmo Kekalainen) through to scouting directors (Montreal’s Trevor Timmins and the Devils’ Paul Castron).
Luce landed his first full-time scouting job with Tampa Bay in 1999. Rick Dudley was the Lightning’s GM and had decided to go all-in on Russian players, something that had to frustrate members of the Tampa staff based in North America—the only player drafted out of the CHL or U.S. colleges in the first four rounds of any of the next three drafts was Russian import Nikita Alexeev of Erie in 2000. At the start of the 2002-03 season, Luce landed a job with the Florida Panthers and stayed there through to last spring, working his way up to amateur scouting director.
“Like anyone in the business, there are good drafts and drafts that didn’t work out for you,” he says. “I got to experience them all.”
From 2010 through to 2015, Luce put together an enviable run of good drafts—matched by a few but not beaten. In 2010, the Panthers scored with Nick Bjugstad at No. 19; in 2011, they took Calder Trophy-winner Jonathan Huberdeau at No. 3 and Vince Trochek, a 25-goal scorer last season, in the third round; in 2012, No. 23-overall defenceman Mike Matheson, who impressed with the Canadian team at the world championships last spring; in 2013, against the conventional wisdom that had either Jonathan Drouin or Seth Jones at No. 2, Luce convinced then-GM Dale Tallon to use the pick to select Aleksander Barkov, firmly established as the franchise centre going forward; in 2014, another Calder winner, Aaron Ekblad with the top pick. With these players forming the core of the lineup, along with Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division with 103 points last season. By the early spring it seemed like Luce was going to be able to dine out on those draft wins for a while.
Reality was the farthest thing from that, as it turned out.
Despite the Panthers’ run, Florida’s front office was in upheaval. Tallon was kicked upstairs to the president’s position and owner Vince Viola appointed Tom Rowe as Tallon’s successor as GM. In April, Rowe surprised NHL scouting circles by cutting Luce loose.
When the NHL announced its approval of Bill Foley’s bid for an expansion franchise in Las Vegas, it looked like an opportunity for Luce to get back in the game. And it looked even more like a fit when Foley introduced George McPhee as the team’s GM. Before he had hired a single staff member, McPhee had hard and fast plans for assembling a staff. “We need to have veteran scouts, hockey men who have experience and will be ready to go from Day One,” he said. “We can’t afford younger guys looking to break into [scouting]. It’s a luxury you can afford when you have an established staff but not with an expansion team.”
Until last season Luce knew McPhee only by reputation. “George was in Washington a long time [16 years] as GM, and then was a consultant with the Islanders. But really, GMs and scouts move in different circles, so our paths never really crossed,” Luce says.
Before their paths crossed, their boys’ did: Luce’s son Griffin and McPhee’s son Graham landed spots in the U.S. Development Team program in Plymouth, Michigan. “George and I met a few times [at USDT games] and had casual conversations about the game,” Luce says. “When I heard George had landed the job in Las Vegas, I reached out to him and told him that I’m available—if anything ever comes open, I’d welcome the chance to get involved.”
McPhee’s voicemail was filling up as fast as he could clear it and resumes were stacking up on his desk, but he soon determined that he wanted to hire Luce. One snag: Luce still had time left on his contract in Florida and when it came to releasing him from the deal, the Panthers dragged their paws. “I had interviewed a bunch of scouts and identified some I really wanted,” McPhee says. “To be fair with them and not to risk losing them I had to sign a few before I could hire Scott.”
Among those McPhee signed was a critical piece to the staff, the chief scout for Europe, Czech-based Vojtech Kucera, who had been one of McPhee’s first hires in Washington. Through Kucera’s time with the Caps, few teams matched the team’s haul from Europe, which included home runs like Niklas Backstom, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg.
On August 25, Luce secured release. He was hired that same day—as was Erin Ginnell, previously Luce’s right-hand man in Florida. “Erin came in the same year with the Panthers as I did,” Luce says. “We had developed as scouts together. It was a perfect fit.”
On arrival in Las Vegas, Luce talked through one strategic point where he differed from his new boss: the hiring of first-time scouts. McPhee came around to Luce’s thinking. “George wanted experienced scouts but we’ve since hired a couple younger guys from a lower level of the game but who have a broader knowledge of these younger age groups that are coming through,” Luce says.
Example: Raphael Pouliot will work the Quebec region for Las Vegas. Previously Pouliot, only four years removed from his playing days in the QMJHL, was the assistant GM and head scout for Memorial Cup finalists Rouyn-Noranda.
Luce’s report from Omaha won’t be the last one he and his staff file on Shane Bowers. It’s too early to say if Bowers will be in Vegas’s mix in the first round (the team is guaranteed a pick in the top six and potentially first overall). Based on chatter in the trade, there’s a good shot that Bowers will be gone by the time Luce and his staff have to make a call on their second-rounder. No matter, they have to do their homework and it started in Omaha. The database is bound to hold more than a couple dozen reports on any player ranked as an A-list prospect by NHL Central Scouting. Luce wouldn’t divulge any of the details of his report from the USHL showcase, but you’d imagine it was a glowing review given that Bowers had two goals in Waterloo’s 3-1 victory over Sioux Falls. That said, Luce won’t judge Bowers, or any other prospect, based on a single viewing. That’s something that the veterans on his staff already know. And something Pouliot will learn as Scott Luce builds a staff that has a date at the draft, if not as yet a name.
Building Vegas: The First Hires
Most NHL GMs choose their assistants from among their past colleagues. But in getting things off the ground in Las Vegas, George McPhee went with a guy he'd never met.