Canadiens’ Timmins on how draft prep has been impacted by COVID-19

Sam Cosentino and Fizal Khamisa discuss the top talent in the upcoming NHL Draft, including Alex Lafreniere, a race for the number two spot, and the likeliness of a combine taking place.

MONTREAL— Under normal circumstances, Trevor Timmins and his staff of Montreal Canadiens scouts would be just hours away from knowing where they’d be slotted in the first round of a draft that was scheduled to take place in their backyard this June.

They’d take that key piece of information away from the NHL Draft Lottery and plug it into their draft board, and they’d continue to add various other pieces as they watched the CHL, NCAA, and European leagues dive into their respective playoffs. Then all parties would be preparing themselves to attend the World Under-18 Championship that was scheduled from April 16-26 in Plymouth, Mich., And from there it would be onto the NHL Combine in early June, which would be followed by a private combine the Canadiens hold every year for players not invited or in attendance at the NHL’s event.

Under normal circumstances, we’d be with Timmins and Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin in Toronto on this day, having a conversation with either one of them about all those things.

But these are anything but normal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken many lives and upended most (if not all) of them. And the working world has not only been profoundly affected by social distancing measures universally adopted; it will continue to be so for an indefinite period.

So, even though Timmins touched on a variety of subjects over the duration of a 50-minute conference call he participated in from his home in Ontario on Thursday–from how he feels about prospects currently in Montreal’s system to how he sees the top-10 of the 2020 draft shaping up–we thought it was imperative to immediately focus on how he and his staff members are approaching their task without assurances there will be a combine of any kind, with amateur-level (and some pro-level) playoffs being outright cancelled, and with the bulk of their operations that would generally be carried out in person now having to be done electronically.

And this is particularly pertinent because the Canadiens are now two seasons into a reset of their roster and they’ve made the draft the highest priority of business in order to successfully achieve that reset.

Armed with 14 picks this year—and after having collected several assets over the last two summers that have them ranked by consensus as having one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey—the Canadiens have an opportunity they can’t afford to squander if they wish to soon break the cycle of repeated Stanley Cup Playoff misses.

One of the first things the Canadiens assistant GM said Thursday was that, even though the pandemic has altered everyone’s process, nothing has gotten in the way of him and his scouts conducting the vital business that needs to be done before any draft.

“We have a structured process that we apply at every draft year, and this hasn’t changed for us,” Timmins said. “I have our staff adhering to the process, which works towards developing our organizational draft board. With no draft date in sight, obviously there’s no end-point for us to work towards. So what I’ve done (is) I’ve kept our amateur scouting staff very busy—somewhat like a university professor—with assignments which have due dates. And the assignments come in an orderly fashion working towards developing our area lists and ultimately towards developing our organizational draft board, which my target date (to complete) is approximately mid-May—the same (date) as we would usually work towards.

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“Luckily we have an online video database that all my scouts have access to, and we have a game library of almost every game that a draft prospect or player anywhere throughout the world has played, and it’s already broken down these games into shifts, goals, assists, breakout passes etc., along with some analytics. So there’s a lot of work, a lot of information available to our scouts online.”

Timmins estimated that he’s spent upwards of six hours a day pouring over the footage and that his scouts have been doing the same for reports they’re filing through their Rinknet technology system, and he explained why that’s an acceptable method at this stage of the game.

“We’re able to do that because we have the bulk of our live coverage done,” Timmins said. “If you went blind and never (had) seen a player live and expect to get a good projection, that would be very difficult to do if you just went on video.”

That’s one hurdle we’d expect most (if not all) teams have successfully jumped over.

Another hurdle circumvented, as Timmins explained, is that interviews that have always happened face-to-face with prospects and their coaches have been converted to FaceTime and phone meetings.

Other hurdles are unavoidable.

It seems obvious enough that various leagues having their playoffs cancelled eliminates an opportunity for every team to evaluate draft prospects and unsigned players under the most pressure-packed circumstances and at a time when they might learn most about those players. And the World U-18 tournament is a key part of year-long evaluations being buttoned up but, with it being canceled, teams are now going to have to finalize their opinions based on the last impression they got at the U-18 Five Nations Tournament that was held in the Czech Republic in February.

And it’s not just that the U-18s represented a chance for the scouts to shore up their opinions; it’s also that, because they were scheduled to take place in Michigan, several general managers were getting an opportunity to be in attendance for games they might have a harder time getting to if they were being held elsewhere.

“They’re not going to be able to see those players live and maybe to have the same voice that they might have in scouting meetings,” Timmins said.

“What it also hurts is that we won’t be able to see some of these prospects—and mostly the top prospects—play within their own age group… (For) example, guys like, in Sweden, (Alexander) Holtz and (Lucas) Raymond who play in the SHL. Although we did see them in the world juniors, that’s Under-20. It’s not Under-18. And another example is (Tim) Stutzle; we saw him at the world junior Under-20 but we haven’t been able to see him play with his own age group this year…It’s a more difficult projection when you see young players having to play with and against men than it is within their own age group.

“And another aspect, too, by not having the Under-18 Championship in Plymouth specifically, is that we won’t get a chance to see a lot of these European players play on the North American ice surface.”

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Timmins wouldn’t put a weight on those factors in how the final draft decisions get made, but he did say it was a considerable part of the evaluation process.

The combines are huge parts of it as well.

“I’m still hoping that maybe we will have time to have some sort of a combine, whether it’s a team combine or NHL combine to be able to get some information. Maybe that’s out of the question,” Timmins said. “If it is out of the question and we’re not able to get any info from an NHL or our own team combines, then I’ve heard that the NHL will be reaching out to try to secure medical information from as many prospects that would usually be at the NHL combine and making that available to each NHL club’s medical staff. So we would have some information, (but) obviously not near what we’d have by holding our own or having NHL combines…there’d be more risk. You wouldn’t have complete information on medical history or growth potential or fitness testing and things like that. It does hurt.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for all teams is going to be wrapping their heads around how the draft will unfold if it’s done in a virtual setting.

“Having the draft on the draft floor with all 31 teams present and the staff and the GM, it allows for a lot of communication during the draft—a lot of deals thrown out there, a lot of deals falling through or getting made,” Timmins said. “There’s a lot of talking on the draft floor, and I think that would impede that.”

Without wanting to speculate on how the NHL Draft would unfold, Timmins added that he and other NHL-types will keep a keen eye on the NFL Draft scheduled for later this month.

“They can’t even get their staff together in a war room at their facility, so that will all be taking place from their homes,” said Timmins. “So that’s going to be interesting to see how that unfolds.”

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