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.
“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.