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Oilers’ Director of Amateur Scouting, Rick Pracey, Discusses Draft Strategy

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Photo credit:NHL.com
Jason Gregor
19 days ago
Rick Pracey has been an amateur scout since 2001. As director of amateur scouting, his best draft class was in 2009 with the Colorado Avalanche, when he selected Matt Duchene (3rd overall), Ryan O’Reilly (32nd), and Tyson Barrie (64th). Landing three of the top 10 scorers from one draft class is rare. Finding three players in one draft class who play 400+ games is a major win for amateur scouts.
Drafting teenagers is highly volatile, but it is an amateur scout’s job. Pracey was hired last August by the Oilers as their Director of Amateur Scouting, and he has the difficult task of finding players later in the draft.
The Oilers don’t have a 1st round pick tonight. They only have one pick, 64th, in the top 150 picks. This will be the norm for the next few seasons as the Oilers push to win a Stanley Cup. Their first-round pick will likely be in play at the trade deadline for the foreseeable future. They’ve already traded their 2nd, 4th and 5th round picks in 2025.
Pracey, and the entire amateur scouting staff, know the challenges, but they are excited to try and uncover some late-round gems ** (A list of recent ones at the end of the interview).**
I spoke with Pracey about his approach to the draft, what he’s learned in 20 years, how analytics impacts the draft, and much more.
Jason Gregor: Do you spend a lot of time in scouting meetings on the top 10-15 players, or is that kind of a waste of your time if you look at it realistically?
Rick Pracey: I still think you do it. It’s more about that process and diligence, and if you start at the top and work your way down,
Some players may get glossed over a little more easily than others, but at the end of the day, you still have to project them to what we think they have the potential to be, and you still have to sort of order them by position. You need to know what that marketplace looks like. So, even if we’re not picking until 64, we still need to have an idea of what we think potentially will happen before we pick.
Unpredictable as it is, we start at one, and we work our way back, and then we try and target when we think, okay, what’s the first player in terms of, you know, maybe reality, what that number looks like. And then we also need to get players we think might be sort of undervalued or efficient, or perhaps we like them better than the industry evaluation. So, we can identify those players, and we have to create situations where we’re looking at trade-up scenarios if players fall to certain areas in the draft.
Gregor: What are your thoughts on the drafting for organizational needs or the best player available?
Pracey: Yeah, it gets tricky. Even with the best player available, it’s pretty open-ended as to who the next best player is. We have 10 scouts with 10 varying opinions and a diverse opinion as to what they’re looking for and what they would interpret the best being, so I think we probably go off of traits and projection, and then we need to have a nice mix in our group.
We need to have someone that values size, we need to have somebody that overvalues competes, we need to have an appreciation for skill and sense. So, it’s sort of a mixture of both, yet to me, it’s identifying the traits, it’s isolating what’s important, and having those metrics of making the traits work. So, the traits match the player type, the player type matches the projection, then let’s bring our analytics into it, let’s take a look at it from a performance standpoint, let’s try and mitigate anything that’s off, and then to me it’s feel.
So, we try to come up with some sort of order based on how we feel about a player, but projection and trait value are probably the best ways to drive the list, in my opinion, as opposed to who the next best player is.
When you go off need, that can get very dangerous. My experience over the years is that needs change rapidly, even in the moment. Crazy things happen, you think you have a lot of depth at one position, or you think it’s strengthening the organization, and the next year, no deals are made, or a prospect doesn’t perform up to expectation, and lots of things change, and although it may seem like a long timeline, it really does happen quickly. And then, to me, when you try and make something fit, you can sort of overcompensate. We need a defenseman, so we take a defenseman. To me, there’s an inherent risk that way, so I’m very careful of trying to make something fit.
Gregor: Having done this for over 20 years, how much more do analytics come into amateur scouting than they had even four or five years ago?
Pracey: I would say substantially, and I think to me it’s all how you embrace it, and then it’s almost like that jury selection type of thing, you’re on the same side, yet you’re looking for things that the eye test tells you something or the evaluation tells you something, and then the numbers, do they agree, do they disagree, and why. Can we provide context as scouts, from the numbers, what do the numbers tell us, can they make us look in different directions. Can we spot efficiency? Can we find out, through the numbers, who’s doing the most with the least?
One thing that I think is really important is environment. You may look at 20 teams in a CHL league for example. They’re not equal, the player in one situation is substantially different than another, a player’s depth on a team might be different, he might be playing with 10 NHL affiliate players, where another prospect might not have any, so we do a lot of work looking at environments, looking at quality competition, quality of linemates, quality of matchups, time on ice, zone charts, even just to understand their usage. If you can get the environment right, you have a chance with the player, whereas if you get the environment wrong, chances are you don’t have any luck getting the player right.
Gregor: I love that answer, Rick, because it’s so true. You can be a 35-goal scorer on a team that has a bunch of 19-year-olds, whereas another player might only have 22 goals, but they’re tasked with leading the team because they’re in a rebuild. 
Further on environment, how do you evaluate the skill set involved in being able to play and produce with skilled players, how much does that come into your evaluation of players?
Pracey: We’ll look at it. There’s always that foxy by proxy that we’re mindful of, yet it takes timing, it takes sequencing, and reading up on players and how they interact through the offensive zone. We look at touches, we look at touches per shift, things like that. There are ways you see how the player interacts within that group. And then with the linemates, it does help you with sorting out the quality competition, and it can give you a little bit of a read if you think a player is overrated based on who they’re playing with and who they’re playing against.
So all things that you have to be mindful of, but it’s that idea that okay, the third line player playing 14 minutes a night behind good players, maybe on the second power player, maybe learning to play on the PK to get his minutes up on a really good team versus a player that’s a first line player with maybe not a strong support staff yet, high minutes, number one power play, featured player in the lineup, how do you mix all that?
So, to me, it goes back to environment. Then it goes back to understanding the player’s situation within his environment, so you can imagine a lot of work that goes into just trying to figure that out because, again, to me, that’s far indicative of their overall analytical profile if you don’t understand that original spot.
Gregor: Are there still certain intangibles you find you have to get in views (on the player) that won’t necessarily show up through all the data and the analytics?
Pracey: I think usage, critical time, I think a lot of the vetting process away from the rink, turns into, okay, if we believe in the kid, and does that reflect the way perhaps he competes, or the intangibles in terms of work habits, their daily life decisions?
I think character, we actually don’t. I’ll kind of watch how I say this: the character component is separate than the actual evaluation of the player, in my mind. So, we have to understand the player away from the rink, we have to understand the player’s environment, how they live, the decisions they make. And if we believe in their character and their growth, and they’re willing to invest in themselves. Then we start from there, and we build from there, and say “Okay, does the way they behave, the decisions they make, how they interact with their relationships, does that turn into a nice component?”
And usually, it’s tied to work habits, competitiveness, and willingness to do little things that show up on a nightly basis. That’s a big one in terms of compete in character, if you can get the puck out. Little things like that, but overall, the character is a massive part of what we look at. Yet, it’s not everything either. If I told you our player evaluation scale, game by game, character itself is in a different file.
Gregor: You were a former goalie. Do you think you have an advantage having played the position in evaluating goalies? When discussing the environment of goaltenders, is facing more quality shots a better environment to evaluate them in?
Pracey: I mean, 20 years ago, I would have told you I had an advantage, but now, after a very humbling run here, I would say no, I don’t think I have an advantage.
I think that the game has changed a tremendous amount of how they play the position, especially from beneath the dots. Size has always come in, especially in the last 10 years, that’s played a factor, but the analytics on goaltenders for sure, there’s tons of things we look at from quality shots they face, volume, the records within the volume, save percentages, PK save percentages… there’s tons of things you can look at to sort through quality versus quantity.
But it’s very rare when 17-year-old goaltenders, a lot of them may not be starting, a lot of them may be getting tough starts, maybe sometimes they’re being fed games that their teams are not expected to win, or on road trips, getting the tough starts, sometimes three games in three days, little things like that. It’s really important to detail, detail, detail, and it’s such an unpredictable position in terms of performance. So, performance is important to us, yet we’re trying to find every indicator that tells us there’s ability, and then we over-rely on the game-by-game stuff at that position. I think what an overplay on our part, you can’t think, is stopping the puck the answer, sure it is, but there’s so much projection at that position that, to me, sometimes performance is a deterrent if you overvalue it.
Gregor: What about the mental toughness factor? Can you even evaluate that on 17 and 18-year-olds when the vast majority of NHL goalies really don’t reach their stride until they’re 25?
Pracey: Yeah, it’s extremely difficult, and again, it goes back to the fact that some goaltenders are starters, some are 50-50, and some are clearly backups in their starting distribution. So, it is really difficult, but you’re still looking for, like, I know, the goalie guys sometimes couldn’t care less about the stoppable one that goes in.
The poor goal, for example, as long as it’s not a consistent leaky location goal or something like that, but if they see a bad goal, maybe it’s the reaction or the recovery from the bad goal. Do they recover on the next shot? Do they look confident? There’s always little body language things or performance-related things within the performance that you can draw out. But the answer to your question, I would say it’s very, very difficult. It’s part of our job for sure, and I think a lot of it comes with experience, and we have Jeff Salajko, who looks exclusively at goaltenders for us and does a terrific job. A lot of the finite stuff and details come from him, and our scouting staff identifies goaltenders. We certainly work at it a ton, but it is a very volatile position. Yeah, like you needed to hear that, there’s a ground-breaking statement (laughs).
Gregor: Lastly, is there a little bit more depth at any one position or type of player in this draft?
Pracey: The only thing I think is there seems to be a bit of a spike a bit, probably early in the draft, if you had a high selection in, let’s say, the top 15 or top 20 in D-men. I think at the defensive position, there are some interesting kids and lots of variety, too. There are some bigger kids with lots of range and some offensive upside, and then there’s, you know, some skill, more of a pure base skill or point production skill in the blue line. I think there is a wide variety of blueliners that seem to be at the top, and then I think maybe once you get past that threshold, it swings a little bit to the forwards. There seems to be some depth up front in terms of quality, maybe not a high-end projection, maybe some middle six or top nine. If you’re really lucky, an undervalued guy who could maybe be a top seven that could go up and down a bit, you might get lucky because there’s a handful of those kids who are really interesting.

PARTING THOUGHTS…

Jun 28, 2023; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; The draft board after round one of the 2023 NHL Draft at Bridgestone Arena.
I enjoyed how transparent Pracey was about his approach. He spoke about being humbled by some of his recent goalie picks and outlined what they look for in players, their environment, and how they intertwine character. You likely won’t know for seven years how his 2024 picks pan out. Very rarely do late-round picks make a quick jump to the NHL.
Currently, the Oilers own the 64th, 160th, 183rd, 192nd, 196th, and 218th picks. Finding players later in the draft is difficult but not impossible, and Pracey’s task this weekend and likely for the next few seasons.
Here’s a list of players who played over 400 games and were taken 160th or later in the draft since 2000.
2000 Draft: Nine rounds
155th: Travis Moen, Calgary. 747 GP.
156th: Greg Zanon, Ottawa. 493 GP.
159th: Jean-Micheal Liles, Colorado. 836 GP.
180th: Darcy Hordichuk, Atlanta. Played 542 games.
194th: Deryk Engelland, New Jersey. 671 GP.
205th: Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers. 887 GP and Hall of Famer.
215th: Matthew Lombardi, Edmonton. 536 GP. Never signed with the Oilers and was drafted two years later by Calgary.
220th: Paul Gaustad, Buffalo. 727 GP.
224th: Antti Miettinen, Dallas. 539 GP.
2001 Draft:
151st: Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver. 808 GP.
161st: Mike Smith, Dallas. 670 GP.
172nd: Dennis Seidenberg, Philadelphia. 859 GP.
175th: Ryan Clowe, San Jose. 491 GP.
176th: Marek Zidlicky, NY Rangers. 836 GP.
179th: Andrew Alberts, Boston. 459 GP.
192nd: Jussi Jokinen, Dallas. 951 GP.
193rd: Brooks Laich, Ottawa. 776 GP.
220th: David Moss, Calgary. 501 GP.
221st: Johnny Oduya, Washington. 850 GP.
241st: Milan Jurcina, Boston. 430 GP.
264th: PA Parenteau, Anaheim. 491 GP.
2002 Draft:
156th: James Wisniewski, Chicago. 552 GP.
191st: Ian White, Toronto. 503 GP.
234th: Max Talbot, Pittsburgh. 704 GP.
241st: Dennis Wideman, Buffalo. 815 GP.
291st: Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit. 680 GP.
2003 Draft:
158th: John Mitchell, Toronto. 548 GP.
163rd: Brad Richardson, Colorado. 869 GP.
168th: Marc Methot, Columbus. 624 GP.
182nd: Bruno Gervais, NY Islanders. 418 GP.
183rd: Nate Thompson, Boston. 844 GP.
186th: Drew Miller, Anaheim. 571 GP.
205th: Joe Pavelski, San Jose. 1,332 GP.
214th: Kyle Brodziak, Edmonton. 917 GP.
239th: Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta. 719 GP.
245th: Dustin Byfuglien, Chicago. 869 GP.
250th: Shane O’Brien, Anaheim. 537 GP.
263rd: Matt Moulson, Pittsburgh. 650 GP.
265th: Tanner Glass, Florida. 527 GP.
271st: Jaroslav Halak, Montreal. 581 GP.
288th: David Jones, Colorado, 462 GP.
291st: Brian Elliott, Ottawa. 543 GP.
2004 Draft:
150th: Mikhail Grabovski, Montreal. 534 GP.
178th: Mike Santorelli, Nashville. 406 GP.
180th: Roman Polak, St. Louis. 806 GP.
214th: Troy Brouwer, Chicago. 851 GP.
224th: Matt Hunwick, Boston. 535 GP.
227th: Chris Campoli, NY Islanders. 440 GP.
258th: Pekka Rinne, Nashville. 683 GP.
262nd: Mark Streit, Montreal. 786 GP.
265th: Daniel Winnik, Phoenix. 798 GP.
287th: Jannik Hansen, Vancouver. 626 GP.
2005 Draft: Dropped down to seven rounds
156th: Ryan Reaves, St. Louis. 877 GP.
216th: Anton Stralman, Toronto. 938 GP.
230th: Patric Hornqvist, Nashville. 901 GP.
2006 Draft: 
160th: Andrew MacDonald, NY Islanders. 586 GP.
161st: Viktor Stalberg, Toronto. 488 GP.
177th: Mathieu Perrault, Washington. 708 GP.
180th: Leo Komarov, Toronto. 491 GP.
189th: Derek Dorsett, Columbus. 515 GP.
2007 Draft:
161st: Patrick Maroon, Philadelphia. 780 GP.
168th: Carl Hagelin, NY Rangers. 713 GP.
173rd: Nick Bonino, San Jose. 868 GP.
179th: Paul Byron, Buffalo. 521 GP.
194th: Carl Gunnarson, Toronto. 629 GP.
201st: Justin Braun, San Jose. 842 GP.
2008 Draft: 
156th: Jared Spurgeon, NY Islanders. 867 GP. Islanders never signed him, and he signed as UFA with Minnesota in September of 2010.
157th: Cam Atkinson, Columbus. 770 GP.
177th: Tommy Wingels, San Jose. 448 GP.
186th: Jason Demers, San Jose. 700 GP.
2009 Draft: 
150th: Nick Jensen, Detroit. 562 GP.
152nd: Anders Lee, NY Islanders. 759 GP.
161st: Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota. 389 GP. Will reach 400 this year.
182nd: Erik Haula, Minnesota. 690 GP.
198th: Nic Dowd, Los Angeles. 500 GP.
2010 Draft:
157th: Jesper Fast, NY Rangers. 703 GP.
178th: Mark Stone, Ottawa. 640 GP.
187th: Frederik Anderson, Carolina. 495 GP. Didn’t sign and was drafted in 3rd round in 2012 by Anaheim.
2011 Draft:
160th: Josh Manson, Anaheim. 578 GP.
179th: Dylan DeMelo, San Jose. 554 GP.
204th: Ryan Dzingel, Ottawa. 404 GP.
208th: Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay. 748 GP.
2012 Draft:
150th: Alex Kerfoot, New Jersey. 524 GP. Never signed with NJ and signed as UFA with Colorado in 2017.
151st: Colin Miller, Los Angeles. 512 GP.
156th: Connor Brown, Toronto. 519 GP.
163rd: Linus Ullmark, Buffalo. 247 GP. (Will reach 400 most likely with Ottawa.)
175th: Matt Benning, Boston. 457 GP. Didn’t sign with Boston and signed as UFA with EDM.
2013 Draft:
191st: Dominik Kubalik, Los Angeles. 357 GP. Could reach 400 this season.
206th: MacKenzie Weegar, Florida. 469 GP.
2014 Draft:
171st: Kevin Labanc, San Jose. 478 GP.
181st: Victor Olofsson, Buffalo. 314 GP. Trending towards 400.
188th: Pierre Engvall, Toronto. 318 GP. Trending towards 400.
207th: Jake Evans, Montreal. 258 GP. Trending towards 400.
210th: Jacob Middleton, 239 GP. Trending towards 400.
2015 Draft: Now at 300 GP threshold
154th: John Marino, Edmonton. 328 GP. Didn’t sign with EDM and signed in Pittsburgh.
159th: Vladislav Gavrikov, Columbus. 353 GP.
166th: Andrew Mangipane, Calgary. 417 GP.
168th: Mason Appleton, Winnipeg. 329 GP.
194th: Matt Roy, Los Angeles. 369 GP.
2016 Draft:
159th: Brandon Hagel, Buffalo. 293 GP. Didn’t sign with BUF and signed with Chicago.
162nd: Jesper Bratt, New Jersey. 471 GP.
Michael Pezzetta (160th to Montreal and 175 GP) and Vincent Desharnais (183rd to Edmonton and 114 GP) could both get to 300+.
2017 Draft: Threshold down to 100 GP.
169th: Nick Perbix, Tampa Bay. 146 GP.
174th: Morgan Barron, NY Rangers, 182 GP.
For 2018 and beyond, it is too early to get a read on most players, never mind those taken later in the draft. It is an excellent reminder to those who ignorantly use the “Bust” term on players a few years after their draft. It is still too early to say if they will pan out, and another reason why the NHL Draft should move the draft age back one year.
The most GP from any player after the 150th pick from 2018 to now:
167th, 2020: Nils Aman, Colorado. 111 GP.
156th, 2018: Pontus Holmberg, Toronto. 91 GP.
210th, 2019: Juuso Parssinen, Nashville. 89 GP.
201st, 2019: Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Montreal. 83 GP.
164th, 2018: Michael Kesselring, Edmonton. 74 GP.
In the salary cap era, finding players after pick 150 is rare. In the 12 drafts from 2006 to 2017, 737 players were drafted 150th, and later, and only 50 of them have played (or are on pace to play) 400 NHL games. Teams have a 6.7% chance that one of those picks plays 400+ games.
It is important to have realistic expectations of players taken in the back half of the 5th round and later.

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