A conversation with Al Murray, the Tampa Bay Lightning's director of amateur scouting
With the NHL draft Friday and Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., Al Murray, the Tampa Bay Lightning's director of amateur scouting, is the point man in the team's effort to maximize it's five draft choices. Tampa Bay is scheduled to pick 27th overall in the first round and also has picks in the second, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. Murray will run the the draft table, and general manager Steve Yzerman said Murray will be the last word when opinions differ.
Murray joined the Lightning last summer after spending three years as head scout for Hockey Canada. He spent 12 previous seasons with the Kings, served as director of amateur scouting and drafted players such as Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. In a wide-ranging conversation, Murray talked about his scouting philosophy, what the Lightning might be looking for and how Yzerman has both given direction but did n ot micro-manage.
On his transition to NHL: When you’re with the national program, with Hockey Canada as I was, it’s all about picking the best players right now for every event, so everything is very much who is playing the best and who’s the hottest when you have to pick each of the teams. That’s very different from a draft situation when you’re projecting on who’s going to be the best player. Most times you’re looking at the same group of players, but someone who’s going to be a real good pro might not necessarily be the right guy at the right time for one of those teams. And someone who is going to be a very effective player for one of those teams might not be a long-term pro, so two very different situations but both a lot of fun.
On the approaching draft: What we do is we put a list together based on who we feel the best player is and move on down to the next best player. If you look at this draft there are probably eight to 10 players who are sort of the consensus top guys. They’ve had very strong seasons, and not just this year but for a couple of years put up real good numbers. So, those eight to 10 guys are at the top of most projections and mock drafts. This year is a little bit unique in that after those eight to 10 guys, just about everybody might get their 11th or 12th player when their pick comes because that next group of probably 40 players are all over the place depending on individual team needs and individual preferences. We’ve just put the final list together the last few days and we feel very comfortable that we’re going to get someone we have a lot of time for, even picking at 27th.
On factors for a 27th pick: We’ve got our attributes that we want all our players to have and we continue to evaluate all the players right through the draft on those attributes and who has the best mix of those. I think hockey and baseball drafts are more similar to each other than football and basketball who are fairly similar. With football, basketball drafts you get to pick someone who oftentimes will be able to have an impact immediately. With hockey and baseball everything is about projection. You’re always trying to pick the best player who has the best attributes for your organization, whether he plays for you or whether you use him in a trade to acquire something else. So, if you get the best players regardless of position, they’ll either be playing for you or you can move them on to fill a hole that you might have on your reserve list. If you try to go for position and put someone ahead of someone else who’s maybe not the same caliber of player and they don’t turn out, then they aren’t of use to you on your team and they don’t have any value for anyone else.
On if Tampa Bay has a specific draft need: Steve (GM Yzerman) has directed us, and I think with most general managers that I’ve ever worked for it is to pick whoever the best players are. At a certain point later in the draft if you’ve taken all defensemen or all forwards or if you’ve already drafted a goalkeeper, you may move a little bit just to balance out the list. But in general, anyone I’ve worked with or for has asked to try to get the best player going long term for the organization.
On attributes he is looking for: If you watch our team play and if you watched Detroit’s team play in the past, first and foremost you want intelligent players who have great compete. We were lucky enough that when we came in for our meetings we were in the middle of our (playoff) series with Washington and I was also able to get into a game against Boston. When you watch National Hockey League playoff games it’s great for our staff to see how competitive and how hard those people work and how driven they are, the good teams are, to be champions. Steve brought that to Detroit as a player and learned how important that was as he watched different teammates over a long career there and then getting into management, so we’re looking for smart players who really compete and are not easily discouraged. Then you want the best skill package and speed package with those attributes that you can get. You look at the way our team plays, it’s a heavy puck-control style. Guy (coach Boucher) is not afraid to have his defensemen move the puck right into the slot and to our forwards if they are open, and the forwards are expected to make a play from that point. So, you want talent and you want skill and we certainly don’t want to be slow. If you’re slow you can’t catch the players when they have the puck off the other team. I don’t think size is any factor for us. We’d rather be more concerned about the size of the fight in the dog than the size of the dog in the fight. We’ll go after compete, hockey sense and talent and not worry so much about size.
On player interviews: We do two sets of interviews. The way we do it is with our regional people. Anyone they would like us to draft we have them interview the player and also talk to their coaches and managers with the teams and anyone else they happen to come in contact with. So, before we get to the end of the season where we have interviews with the combine, we’ve already got interviews formalized with the player, so we then have talked to most people who have coached him or managed him over the last couple of years. We usually have some very specific questions at the interviews. You don’t get a lot of time to psychoanalyze people but we do use the interviews to ask specific questions about maybe concerns or maybe that we’ve heard about them and try to find out what the problems might be or what the little glitches in their backgrounds might be as well as to try to gauge how important hockey is to them and what is their love for the game and their passion and are they going to be the people that are going to work hard to get better and become pro players. When you get the young players, so much of whether they become successful or not is: will they continue to work hard? A lot of them have made it to a certain level by some natural ability with a little bit of hard work. When you’re finally told you’re not quite good enough to make the National Hockey League and you have to go to the American League and continue to work very hard on some small part of your game, some can and some can’t do that and that is going to determine who is successful and who isn’t a lot of times.
On character: We view character very strongly. I know we did with Hockey Canada. It was a thing that could keep people off our teams and we did keep people off our teams that probably were more talented than other players, but we didn’t feel we could trust them to compete and be good teammates and accept the roles that they were going to be asked to accept. When it came down to those character issues, if a guy is a bad person, we’ve taken players off lists in the past both with Hockey Canada and with the Kings and we’ll continue to do that. If guys are questionable as far as their compete and whether they are good teammates and a potential player you can win with then we’ll either drop them down the list or have them taken off the list as well. If you feel that a person has made some mistakes in the past and they acknowledge those mistakes and have learned from them and have shown a willingness to do things differently, you certainly want to give people a second chance if they want to show you that they want it. If there’s somebody you feel is lazy or isn’t a good teammate or doesn’t sacrifice for the betterment of the team, those guys who have done so over a number of years or over a long period of time you’re probably not going to change those people, so you’re probably better off just to move on without some of those guys.
On who makes decisions at draft table: Steve has been great about giving us direction. One of the things that sometimes you don’t get from your general manager enough is the type of team he wants to put together and the attributes he wants you to find in players. We’ve had great direction from Steve, and I’ve known Guy Boucher a long time and I know the style of teams Guy wants to put together and what the players are here to be successful for him need. So, I think we’ve had some really good identification of what our upper management wants us to acquire. (Head amateur scout) Darryl Plandowski, along with the other scouts, have tried to find those players over the course of the season. Darryl and I cross over and see the top players. I think most of the decisions, if there is a tie, would come from Darryl and I. Steve didn’t have the opportunity to get out to see the players as often as he’d like. He’s been great. He says he has just enough information to be dangerous, so he’s going to stay out of it and let us do it to the best of our ability.
On Tampa Bay’s second-round draft pick: Second-round picks have become incredibly valuable. They seem to be the currency of choice for trade or moving up in the draft or, in some cases, and next year may be one of those cases, where it’s so deep you may take a two and pick up two threes. Second-round picks have become very valuable and our hope is always if we can nail our first and second round picks everything else takes care of itself and you can build some depth throughout the draft. So, we view the second round every bit as important as the first. Oftentimes you can get a player who is just as effective as you can in the first.
On his time with the Kings: I started with the Kings as a regional scout. I was six years of the western regional person primarily responsible for the Western Hockey League but also Junior A and college in western Canada … and then was named director of amateur scouting. It was interesting in Los Angeles because I worked with a number of different general managers and every one had a little different take on how the draft should go and a different feel on how they wanted us to put our lists together; preferences by position in some cases, preferences with the general manager getting out and doing a lot of scouting in some cases versus very little scouting. But in the end it always came back to the same process. There’s usually the head scout and one or two other people who cross over a lot and try to see as much of the top 50 or 60 players as they can. And you’re taking direction from your regional scouting staff who are responsible for an area. … When it comes to players such as Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, they’re great players for the Kings and they were fun people to be around. They definitely were a group decision. It’s not one person, ever, in my experience putting that together. There’s a regional person who identifies the player a year or two before the draft and starts to follow him, pushes his name up to the people that cross over. We get viewings of those players, along with the regional person, for a year and a half leading up to the draft and try to see them in as many situations as you can and making those players at the top of it, as those two were, known to the general manager so he can come in if possible and get a couple of looks at them. So, it really is an effort that takes place over a couple of years, not just one short period of time, and it’s a group of people who are always responsible for every selection.
On Yzerman: He certainly gives you the responsibility, but with that comes accountability. He’s been great that way, allowing us to go about our business without him looking over our shoulder but always there as a sounding board and always double-checking. He reads our reports on a regular basis. He checks our lists. He gets information from other people in the business that he passes on to us. So, he’s very involved even when he’s not out watching players and watching games. As I say, the biggest thing you hope for is you work with someone who gives you great direction and you trust and he’s been outstanding in both of those areas.
On his own compete level: I’d like to think that nobody has outworked us this year. I feel very comfortable in saying that. I’ve worked with a number of different people from a number of different teams and staffs and I know no one does more reports than our guys. No one makes more phone calls than our staff, and no one does more interviews than our staff. I know we haven’t been outworked. I think we’ve narrowed it down to a group of players we believe will be available at 27. Over the last week and a half we’ve turned over every stone we can to track, not just those players but those ahead of them in case someone falls to us that we don’t expect, so I’m pretty confident we have all the possible information we can have. You’re never sure because it’s not an exact science, but I like to think we’ve done a pretty good job of putting it in the right order, so just hope everyone cooperates a little bit with us on draft day and leaves somebody good that we really like.