Blackhawks Vice President of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley joined the Blackhawks Talk Podcast on Tuesday to discuss Kirby Dach's rookie season, the challenges of building a draft board virtually and the team's philosophy on picking the best available player or an organizational need.
You can listen to the full interview on the Blackhawks Talk Podcast, but here are highlights from the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
Before we dive into this year's draft, I wanted to get your thoughts on Kirby Dach's rookie season. He obviously went through some ups and downs, but certainly looked like a different player after the pause. What did you see?
Well I think that's just it. During the initial season, I think it was a learning experience. It's very difficult for an 18-year-old to make that jump. I thought he did a really terrific job. And then to see him come back after the pandemic break and arrive in July, it was the first time probably in two years that he had had three or four months where he could just train.
If you think back to after we drafted him, he went from being drafted, being in Chicago, coming to our development camp, going to the Canada World Juniors, coming back for the rookie tournament, and I think just physically it took a toll on him. And when he went back home in March, the work he did on his own is a tribute to his character.
I remember in Vancouver last year, a big reason why you guys were so confident in taking him third overall was because of his postseason performance in the WHL. Watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year and seeing the step that he took since the pause, is that what you envisioned when you drafted him?
Well, I think we did, but we were projecting him ... I can't say we were projecting Kirby to be as effective and impactful as he was in this playoffs a year later. We certainly projected it, it appears Kirby's turned up the timeline.
Let's move on to this year's draft. What have these last few months been like for you and your staff? Obviously the pause has allowed you guys a few extra months to build your draft board, but at the same time you didn't have the luxury of scouting those prospects during those postseason runs like you did with Kirby.
No, we didn't, so it kind of changed the playing field, but it changed the playing field for everybody. I think the first thing that we did was, we embraced the fact that there was a change, so then we looked at doing it a little bit different. We had people that didn't normally see some players watch players on video, archived film, so we didn't get the games at the end of the year that we were looking forward to but it gave us a chance to have more people go back and look at archived film.
Did you have to adjust during the pause after the rumblings came out that there could be a 24-team playoff and maybe you were honing in on the Top 10 players in the draft, and then it's like 'Oh, OK, now we're picking the middle range potentially, depending on how far we go'?
It does, it changed really what our target players were but the first thing we had to look at was when there was going to be a draft. Initially, we were preparing for the draft to be at the end of June, and then there was speculation it was going to be later in the summer, and then we heard it might be in early June, so really the month of May we kind of expedited. We did a lot of interviews on Zoom, we had a lot of amateur meetings on Zoom, and then we got into June only to hear that the draft was now going to happen later in the summer and then to find out after the playoffs, so I think for a little bit there was a little bit of a setback because we were excited about the draft, but then really what we did was took the schedule and worked with it. We worked on various projects throughout the summer to stay engaged.
Obviously another part of the equation is you guys didn't have the luxury of interviewing these prospects face to face and there was no scouting combine. How much of an adjustment has that been?
Not having the scouting combine, it hurts more from the physical testing and not being able to get Paul Goodman and his staff to Buffalo to watch them work out and give us an assessment on where the players are physically and where he thinks he can get the players to physically.
On the interview side, we actually, I found Zoom to be a very, very good substitute. First of all, in Buffalo, we speak to them for 20-25 minutes, over Zoom we had no timeline, so we found most of the interviews were running somewhere around 45 minutes, some were going longer. The nice thing on Zoom was, the kids were home, they were comfortable, I just found it was easier to find a comfort level for the player when they were sitting at home in their own environment.
My follow-up question was going to be, think back to when you interviewed Kirby and even Adam Boqvist face to face, is that an important part of the process of putting the whole picture together when you're evaluating these players?
It is, because with both Adam and Kirby, we interviewed them in the formal setting in Buffalo, but we also took time — whether it was for a lunch or a dinner — generally just standing eye and we were able to find a comfort level. This year, we did a lot of dinners and lunches throughout the year we try to do that with the regional scouts, but this year we didn't have the luxury of Buffalo and being able to do that.
So we're recording this podcast over Zoom, and in a week or so, you're going to be running a draft virtually. Have you thought about how strange that will be and what's it going to look like on your end?
I'll be in Chicago, so I don't think it's going to feel much different once the draft gets going. The IT people will handle the whole production of it, we'll have a draft central, a table set up, once it kind of happens, I think it'll have the same kind of feel.
One of the big differences is, the staff will be remote, so we'll be Zooming with them, so the players will be remote. It'll be interesting.
Very interesting, I was actually going to ask if it's going to be similar to the trade deadline where you're all in a room together — probably socially-distanced — but you're going to be over Zoom with some of your staff members? You guys aren't all going to be in the same room together?
No, what will happen is, for staff members to come in, there's a quarantine they'd have to go through to arrive, and if they're going back home to another country, there's another two-week quarantine, so some staff members that are living in the states can come in as long as they're coming in from an area that is deemed ... I'm not sure, but Illinois and Chicago have restrictions on certain states. So the people that meet those or don't fall into those restrictions, they'll be coming in, but internationally we won't be bringing anyone in.
Let's dive into this year's draft class. How would you characterize the class as a whole, maybe specifically the first round from a depth and positional standpoint?
I think the draft, at the very top, there's a few players that people have very, very high expectations for and have been getting a lot of press, and rightfully so. I think there's probably three of four players that stand above the rest in this draft. After that, I think the draft becomes a fairly common draft. There's different tiers, I think after the first three or four players, I think you have another tier that takes you to another eight or nine players, there are probably four different tiers in the first round itself.
I know last year you were picking No. 3 and the first and second overall picks were pretty consensus, so you kind of had an idea that you would be picking from this large pool of players, and even so in the Adam Boqvist draft when you were picking eighth overall. I know you've done this for a very long time so it's not going to be new territory, but is that going to be kind of an adjustment not knowing how the draft is going to play itself out?
No, because we've spent enough time, we're feeling very confident that we have a good idea how the first 12 names that are going to come off the board. We don't expect that we'll have them in the exact order that they come off the board because each team looks at a player and values a player a little bit differently, but we think we've identified the 12 names that will come off first so that gives us a pool of five or six players that we start looking at hard for that 17th pick.
I know there's going to be a different pool of players at No. 17 than when you were picking at No. 3 last year, but do you still feel confident that you can get a high-end player — maybe one that has Top-10 potential — that could maybe fall to No. 17?
The interesting thing is, when we talk about Top 10 potential, right now there's a lot of the Top 10 players would be based upon what they've done so far. So what we're trying to do is project what they're going to do in the future, really where we think they can max out at in three or four years. I think, historically, if you go back and look at the draft, a lot of times at No. 17 you can take a player that's definitely one of the Top 10 players in the draft.