Sonier Evaluations

Jonathan Willis
July 26 2008 11:16AM

Grant Sonier is a Michigan-based amateur scout for the Boston Bruins. Previously, he’s been the assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings and Florida Panthers, the G.M. of the Detroit Vipers of the IHL, and an assistant coach and head coach of ECHL, IHL and junior teams.

There’s a paragraph in Gare Joyce’s book Future Greats and Heartbreaks about a scouting exercise that Sonier concocted once:

Grant Sonier, and assistant coach for [Columbus Blue Jackets Director of Hockey Operations Don] Boyd in Newmarket and these days a scout for the Los Angeles Kings, came up with a brain-teaser about player evaluation: If you had three categories – talent, hockey sense, and character – and only six chips to place in those slots, how would you distribute them? …. I asked Sonire how he’d spread those chips if he were scouting – in retrospect – Jason Bonsignore. His reply was quick and to the point: “Six on talent, none for hockey sense, none for character.”

In retrospect it seems obvious, but at the time most missed the critical point: Jason Bonsignore had a talent for hockey but almost no interest in it, beyond what it could do for him.

While it is difficult for spectators to judge things like a player’s character, it’s occasionally something that can be seen in retrospect, based on published reports, comments from teammates and coaches and the like.

Take Ed Caron as an example. He was a second round pick by the Oilers in the Ales Hemsky draft (2001). A big physical forward with some scoring ability, Caron had an okay season in 2001-02 for the University of New Hampshire. Then, however, he applied to Yale for 2002-03; switching schools like that makes a player ineligible to play hockey for an entire season, and sacrificing a key development year like that was a poor choice if Caron had hopes of an NHL career.

It turned out to be a poor choice on multiple levels. Half-way through the 2002-03 season, Caron decided to return to New Hampshire, essentially burning a year of playing time for no discernible gain whatsoever. Yale coach Tim Taylor had this to say:

"The only thing I can tell you is that he's not coming back to Yale this semester. I think he just has some family and personal issues, and I think he felt he needed to be closer to his family at this point to put his feet on stable ground. He's got a lot swirling around in his head right now."

Apparently a balance between academics and hockey was something that Caron, a first-rate student, was striving for. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

After returning to New Hampshire, Caron’s numbers actually decreased from his first NCAA season. The next season he turned pro, playing one year in the ECHL (posting 19 points in Greenville), before giving up on professional hockey altogether.

I’ve never seen Caron play, so I wouldn’t be able to put those chips in the other slots, but I am confident saying his character (not necessarily a lack of character so much as a lack of dedication to hockey) was what ended up defining him as a prospect.

Another player we could do this for would be the recently-traded Joni Pitkanen. I made references to Charlie Huddy’s comments about Pitkanen in a previous post, and we’ve likely all heard what Ethan Moreau (and Eric Desjardins before him) had to say about the defenseman. Coachability was a major issue for Pitkanen; Huddy might as well have said he wouldn’t do what he was told. Here’s what he said:

“Joni did a lot of good things for us… sometimes guys have their own reads on how they should play and things like that, and at some point you have to be able to follow a game plan…”

Pitkanen’s talent has never been in question. His performance on the powerplay and occasionally sketchy decision making leave hockey sense questionable, and from everything I have heard and seen, character is a minus in all areas, from playing through injury, responding to coaching, and interacting with teammates. If I had to put those chips in, I’d probably put 5 on talent, 1 on hockey sense, and 0 on character.

It is more difficult to evaluate prospects. Even Rob Schremp, easily the best-known of the group, is hard to evaluate. His talent level is high. His character is difficult to quantify; he seems to me to have some issues with coaching, but at the same time he’s thrown himself into off-season training with the rest of Chad Moreau’s crew. I imagine that he’s largely self-willed; plenty of drive, but he decides what he’s going to work on, and that’s all there is to it.

Guy Flaming’s piece is the best I have read when it comes to revealing his character. I’ve grabbed a few quotes, but if you haven’t read it yet, the entire article is well worth the time.

From Prendergast:

“He’s very cocky and he sure doesn’t lack for confidence. His abrasive attitude rubs you the wrong way if that’s not the way you want to be rubbed.”

On his pre-draft interview: It’s that honestly that also tagged him with another negative report that claimed pre-draft interviews between Schremp and the Oilers featured an exorbitant amount of foul language. The report in question indicated the Oilers were surprised and possibly put off to some degree by the meeting.

“I use the F-word when I talk to my friends and maybe I do swear too much but again, that’s how I am and I didn’t want to go in there and lie about what kind of personality I have,” Schremp explained. “That’s what they want, they want to try and get a read on what kind of kid you are so if I go in and act like somebody else then they’re not getting the right read on me you know? It was like I’m talking to you now, I went in and answered their questions and with some of the questions you get tense and words just start flying out of your mouth and you realize after and say ‘ah man, I really shouldn’t have said that’.”

On his skating (still cited as a weakness by the coaching staff):

“I don’t think skating is a weakness but it can improve, everybody can improve their skating,” Schremp said. “I went to power skating in Regina for a month this summer and I think it paid off for me so I’m pretty happy with it.” At a guess, I’d put 3 chips on talent, 1 on hockey sense, and 2 on character. How would you rate him, or any other Oilers player/prospect?

“Rob’s got all the tools to be a player in the NHL someday but mentally he has to get on board with what’s going on around him. He has to understand the process in every situation whether it’s with the London Knights, U.S. junior hockey or the Edmonton Oilers. He has to work hard, be consistent, be on the ice and ready to play and practice.”

Jonathan Willis is the owner of Copper & Blue, a blog dedicated to all things Oil, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Jonathan
July 26 2008, 11:28AM
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Here's the link for Flaming's piece:

http://www.hockeysfuture.com/articles/7164/the_revealing_of_rob_schremp/

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#2 jdrevenge
July 26 2008, 12:40PM
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What was the scouting report on Avery pre draft? I would be interested to see if there was any similarities. Avery was obviously a better skater but does have skill enough to be a second line player on the right team.

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#3 Mr. Brightside
July 26 2008, 10:07PM
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Has there been a player in recent Oiler history that has been a more curious study than Robbie Schremp? There is a big part of me that has to respect the "I am who I am" mentality the Schremp appears to have. Yet on the other hand I strongly disagree with the sentiment that talent, even in the absence of work ethic (the Bob Stauffer philosophy)is all that matters...

Is this guy a talented but lazy pre-madona or, is he just his own man that won't be forced to be something he is not (ie. a 4th line grinder). Can somebody tell me? Either way he won't play on a Mac T coached team, but it makes a huge difference in the way I, at least, view him as a person....

Nice Piece Jonathan...

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#4 Mr. Brightside
July 26 2008, 11:11PM
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So admittedly I am a Blogosphere rookie to say the least. Usually I just rail anonymously at Brownlee and Stauffer ensconced in the security of my own car. If you can imagine where Linus Omark is in relation to making the big squad, that's where I am in comparison to the "Battle of Alberta Blog". That said in light of Jonathan's previous post I decided to check out that particular site. In doing so I read the post with respect to the Calgary signing of Andre Roy. It was less than complimentary and I, personally, wonder why? Unlike his namesakes Pat & Jonathan, here's a guy who CAN fight, WILL fight and HAS fought every tough guy in the NHL and does it withought being a liability on the ice (career p/m of -16) and "battle of Alberta" rips the move? For year now I have dreamt of the Vinny to Edmonton deal and it ALWAYS included Roy as a bit piece in the deal. GREAT move by Calgary in my opinion. Roy is highly underrated as a tough guy and his arrival in Cow Town is just one reason for Zack S. to have second thoughts about his new contract...

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#5 fyvmvv
July 27 2008, 01:34AM
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I'm not sure what concerns me more...the poor showing by Shremp for most of the last 3 years or the Oiler's very poor judgement on occasion when selecting players in the draft. As I have said previously there are plenty of examples of exceptionally poor choices in the past by all organizations but the Oil have really pooched it in many recent drafts. Hemsky has been good but there seem to be more choices like Steve Kelly and Jason Bonsignore for instance.

It seems to me the Oil have done some really irregular things in the draft. They don't seem to heed Central Scouting. It seems they are selecting players who almost no one else sees potential in and based on some of those choices they do not work out. Plante is one recent draft that leaves me wondering. Yes Gagner looks to be a good pick but there are guys they've drafted and like Jacques and kept for years and have inexplicably cut loose guys like Lupul after one season. He really wasn't given a fair look. They like to go their own way and pass up on the Corey Perrys and pick Pouliot. They don't seem to like to listen to outside sources who rate players. At the very least there seems to be a bit of a disparity between the GM and Mact. Lowe brings the player into the organization and Mact summarily boots them out.

I really don't get.

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#6 Jonathan
July 27 2008, 08:29AM
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In doing so I read the post with respect to the Calgary signing of Andre Roy. It was less than complimentary and I, personally, wonder why? Unlike his namesakes Pat & Jonathan, here’s a guy who CAN fight, WILL fight and HAS fought every tough guy in the NHL and does it withought being a liability on the ice (career p/m of -16) and “battle of Alberta” rips the move?

There are a couple of issues with Roy. First off, in my mind, is that he's had big-time rifts with his coaches in the past (particularly Tortorella). Secondly, Roy is put in the same spot most enforcers are: fourth line ice-time against nobodies, and excepting one season (I think it was 2002-03) Roy hasn't shown any aptitude for hockey outside of fighting.

I know I'm largely in the minority on this one, but in my opinion, being able to fight shouldn't be enough to keep you on the roster.

As I have said previously there are plenty of examples of exceptionally poor choices in the past by all organizations but the Oil have really pooched it in many recent drafts. Hemsky has been good but there seem to be more choices like Steve Kelly and Jason Bonsignore for instance.

Well, in fairness, those two examples were selected under the Barry Fraser regime- a scouting group who's record in the 90's was simply atrocious. Lowe's group has made one really ugly blunder (Niinimaki) and some funny picks, but they've been interspersed with better than average selections (Cogliano 25th overall stands out).

It seems to me the Oil have done some really irregular things in the draft. They don’t seem to heed Central Scouting. It seems they are selecting players who almost no one else sees potential in and based on some of those choices they do not work out. Plante is one recent draft that leaves me wondering. Yes Gagner looks to be a good pick but there are guys they’ve drafted and like Jacques and kept for years and have inexplicably cut loose guys like Lupul after one season. He really wasn’t given a fair look. They like to go their own way and pass up on the Corey Perrys and pick Pouliot.

Well, by the end of the year, nobody heeds central scouting. I strongly recommend Future Greats and Heartbreaks as the best look at NHL scouting ever written. Gare Joyce spends a whole year behind the scenes in Columbus, and what he finds is exraordinary. Central Scouting's first two lists are used as a guide to cherry-pick from, and by the end of the year, each organization disagrees wildly on certain players.

As for the two guys you mentioned (Plante, Pouliot), both were consensus first rounders when they were picked- they weren't great selections, at least so far, but all of the best forecasters (Red Line, Mackenzie, McKeen's) has them in the first round, so the Oilers were actually going with the flow there.

They took both Hemsky and Niinimaki higher than forecast, and with mixed results.

As for Lupul, they didn't dump him. Pitkanen was a good player and fair value, and Erik Cole is a far better player now than Lupul will ever likely be.

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#7 Dennis
July 28 2008, 04:41PM
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I remember being railed on over at HF because I questioned Caron's dedication to hockey.

Granted, he had a better chance of achieving success by way of school then he did by making it as a professional hockey player, but you could see from his early quotes that hockey wasn't his #1 priority.

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