Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill and his scouting staff are continually spanning the globe for potential NHL players.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Driving the roads between Chicoutimi and Drummondville, Quebec in the late fall might sound like a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it’s all part of the job for Jim Nill.
The assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings is responsible for directing the team’s amateur scouting efforts, and he believes there’s more to the job than just sitting in an office somewhere in the Motor City.
“If you’re going to sit at home, and just go to watch somebody once or twice, thinking you’ve got this guy or that guy all figured out, you’re going to be surprised,” Nill said recently while driving through the rocky terrain of Canada’s largest province to attend games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“It’s not a very complicated business. You’ve got to go to games.”
And so Nill, like the other members of the Red Wings' scouting staff, will crisscross the globe every fall and winter, watching teenagers in junior hockey leagues in Canada, in college games in the U.S. and in elite leagues throughout Europe, all in preparation for the NHL’s annual draft of amateur players.
“There’s no secret to this business,” Nill continued. “It’s all about going to games, analyzing players and getting information in order to make the right decision when it comes to the draft.”
The Red Wings’ track record speaks for itself. Considering that the team did not have a first-round pick in six out of eight drafts between 1999 and 2006, the organization has fared extremely well.
Detroit, for example, selected Tomas Holmstrom in the 10th round (257th overall) in 1994, Pavel Datsyuk in the sixth round (171st overall) in 1998, and Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh round (210th overall) in 1999.
More recently, late-round discoveries included Derek Meech in the seventh round (229th overall) and Jonathan Ericsson in the ninth round (291st overall), both in 2002 draft, and Darren Helm in the fifth round (132nd overall) in 2005.
Finding those diamonds in the rough doesn’t happen by chance.
“We’re hoping to see a player 5-10 times to get a pretty good feel,” Nill said. “We’re looking for the best players with the best skills, who have some character and are willing to work hard. It sounds easier than it is.”
There have been years where Detroit did not have a pick until the third or fourth round of the draft. In 2004, the Red Wings took Johan Franzen with their first pick in the third round.
“We’re not looking at players like Joe Thornton because we know we’re20 not going to get him,” Nill said. “We’re looking at a different tier player, so we have to look a little harder.”
Spotting talent in a teenager, of course, is never easy. There are very few “can’t miss” prospects.
“A lot of these kids are playing against guys who are a couple of years older, so they’re not getting much ice time,” Nill said. “The kid I went to see in Chicoutimi only got about five shifts the whole game. You just hope you’re at the game where he shows something that someone else hasn’t seen.”
It all takes time, but Nill enjoys the process. “I love hockey and I love going to hockey games, like the rest of our scouts do,” he said. “We get to see future stars when they’re only 14 or 15 years old. That’s the neat part of the business.”
Nill enjoyed a nine-year NHL career as a scrappy right winger who battled hard on every shift, playing in Boston, Vancouver, St. Louis, Winnipeg and Detroit. He spent his final two and a half seasons in uniform with the Wings, finishing as a player-coach with Detroit’s farm team in Adirondack.
He retired as a player after the 1990-91 season, then joined the scouting staff of the Ottawa Senators, where he was mentored by John Ferguson.
Ferguson was a five-time Stanley Cup winner as a player, who was also a general manager with Winnipeg and the New York Rangers.
“I got my eyes opened up pretty fast,” Nill recalled. “As a player, you sit back and analyze what management is doing – why did they trade this guy, why did they sign that guy? But you’re talking about pros.
“When you’re looking at amateurs, it’s a whole new ball of wax. You think you have a good feel, but I found out quickly that it wasn’t that easy. I was very fortunate to travel with John Ferguson, who – bless his soul — passed away a year ago.
“He had a real good feel for players, especially for European players, whom he respected for their skill. He mentored me and showed me the ropes.”
Nill joined the Red Wings after his three-year stint with the Senators. “When I came to Detroit, I was fortunate again to work with (now senior vice president) Jimmy Devellano, another guy with 30-40 years in the business,” Nill said.
Current Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was amateur scouting director at the time. “All of the people I’ve worked with have had that scouting mentality, so you can learn a lot from them.”
Nill points to the fact that the majority of the Red Wings' scouting staff has been together for a number of years, unlike other teams where new management often portends a change in direction.
“We’ve been together 10-15 years, so we know the type of players we like,” Nill said, giving credit to ownership for keeping the team-within-the-team intact.
“The Ilitch family has respected that we’ve done a good job and they’ve rewarded us and kept us together. That continuity is important.”
Nill stays on the same page with his scouting staff through constant communication and daily scouting reports. Every scout files a report following a game, assigning numerical values to players, along with comments.
“We’re making lists and ranking players all the time,” Nill said. “We’re comparing players from a certain region with guys from all over the world.”
The difficulty is that teenagers are still largely untested. “You’re trying to project where a kid at 17 is going to be when he’s 23. Is he going to keep improving and keep getting stronger? You do a lot of comparing with other guys.”
Drafting players is only the first step. As far as the Red Wings are concerned, the developmental process is equally important. As one of the top teams in the NHL year after year, Detroit can afford to take its time with promoting young players.
“We’d rather let players develop at their own pace, and that’s where you have to give a tip of the hat to the players,” Nill said. “We’d rather they stay in Grand Rapids until they’re ready. We like a player to be overripe.
“We’re not into developing them in Detroit – we’re into winning.”
Nill is excited by the progress shown by the current crop of youngsters in Grand Rapids. Organizations go through cycles with their prospects and Nill feels the outlook appears very encouraging at present.
“We knew we had an influx of 10 to 12 pretty good kids over the next two or three years,” he said. “We’re just beginning to see the first push of that and we’re very excited because this is the future of our team.”
Players in Grand Rapids are in the process of “getting that Winged Wheel stamped on their heart,” according to Nill. “They’re going to grow together and develop into NHL players.”
Of course, young players, by their very nature, are eager to move up the ladder. Nill has some words of advice.
“The toughest part is they would all like to be in Detroit, but they need to fine-tune their games a little bit first. They have to understand they’re all going to get a good shot at playing in Detroit.
It just takes a little time.”
Meanwhile, Nill and his staff will continue to travel every back road in pursuit of the next prospect.
“Again, there’s no secret – you’ve got to go to games,” Nill said. “I’m a big believer that there’s a hockey god out there and if you work hard, you’ll get rewarded. We’re not the only ones. Other teams get rewarded the same way.”
Of course, not all prospects will make it to the NHL, but it’s the successes that keep Nill and his scouting team driving to the next destination.
“If you think you’ve got this business all figured out, you’re in trouble because you don’t,” Nill said. “You’re going to be surprised every year in the draft. In that way, it can be a pretty humbling business.”
For Nill, it’s gratifying to see former Griffins like Jiri Hudler and Tomas Kopecky grow into NHL players.
“At 18, Jiri was the leading scorer in the Czech elite league, so we knew he had talent,” Nill said. “We brought him to Grand Rapids and it took him some time (to develop).
“We probably could have brought him up a year or two earlier, but we didn’t rush him. We could have thrown him into the lineup, but it might have stunted his development.”
Kopecky had a similar background, having been a top scorer in junior hockey, but he learned he had to change his style in order to earn a promotion to the Red Wings’ roster.
“He understood that if he was going to stick in Detroit, he was going to make it as a third or fourth liner, and that’s the toughest thing for these kids to learn,” Nill said.
Most prospects, Nill points out, were scorers at lower levels. Getting them to focus on things other than putting the puck into the net isn’t always so easy.
“What most kids don’t realize is that you can make a great living on the third or fourth line or as the sixth or seventh defenseman. If you can do it for 15-20 years, that’s a pretty good career. Kid’s don’t always grasp that.”
If there’s one thing that young players need to learn, it’s patience.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids and they all want more ice time, but they’ve got to pay their dues. Darren Helm wasn’t a big part of the team in Grand Rapids for the first six weeks of last season and he ended up winning a Stanley Cup with us.
“It’s a long year and good things can happen. Just be patient.”