As the recession grinds on, the gap in spending among the NHL's wealthy and not-so-wealthy teams continues to widen, with scouting becoming one of the key differences.
An informal survey of general managers and scouts reveals that some teams have cut back on their scouting budgets in recent years, mostly the lower-revenue teams, while some of the big-market clubs have thrown more money at finding talent. The way they see it, the more bird dogs you have beating the bushes, the better your decisions will be at the draft table and in making trades.
"We have the financial means to exploit that advantage and we are doing so," said Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, who increased his team's scouting department to 20 people since he joined the Leafs in November of 2009. "It is spending that is not governed by the salary cap so you should capitalize on it if you can."
The size of the scouting departments of NHL teams varies from a high of 22 with the New Jersey Devils to a low of nine with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Colorado Avalanche. The average is about 13, including scouting directors, who also scout players, full-time and part-time scouts.
"It's one of the easiest places to cut costs," said NHL Network broadcaster and former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button, who also spent years as a scout and player personnel director. "We have Central Scouting [the NHL's service]so people ask why not use Central Scouting?"
Button said there is no hard evidence that spending less on scouting hurts a team's ability to find or judge talent. But he thinks that the wealthier teams should still make spending on scouting a priority.
Button and several others surveyed pointed out that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello rarely makes a bad call on draft day or trades away a player who comes back to haunt the team. They all said it is no coincidence Lamoriello has the biggest scouting staff in the league.
Elsewhere, some teams are trying to do more with less, as the saying goes in shrinking industries, or trying to innovate.
The Florida Panthers, for example, have been steadily cutting their scouting budget for at least a year. Their scouts travel less than they used to but the team tries to make up for it through regional coverage, a tactic other teams have adopted. Each of the Panthers' three pro scouts covers a region, with one doing the East, one the Midwest and another the West.
Another practice is for two NHL teams to share a scout. For example, Claude Loiselle works part-time as a pro scout for both the Maple Leafs and the Anaheim Ducks. This allows teams to beef up their coverage in some areas at a modest price and both teams have access to the scout's reports.
Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier raised some eyebrows seven years ago when he announced the team would rely more on video to look at players. He said he is happy with the results so far but adds the program is "still a work in progress because we're still learning how to do it more efficiently."
Regier said the idea was not solely to save money. He said the more "views" a prospect gets, the better a decision on the player will be. By sending one scout to a game who is trained how to use a video camera, he can come back with a DVD that can be studied by several other Sabres scouts.
For example, Regier said, where some teams will send two or three scouts to a major European hockey tournament, the Sabres will send one who is armed with a camera. Then almost all of the team's scouts study the resulting video.
The Sabres have drafted fairly well since they changed their approach. Last year's first-round pick and the 13th player taken overall, 19-year-old defenceman Tyler Myers, is a contender for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Regier said he has had inquiries from other teams about their system, but so far no one has adopted the model as completely as the Sabres. Both Button and Tim Bernhardt, the Dallas Stars' director of amateur scouting, say video may get more use in scouting professional players rather than amateurs.
"You can get to know players and learn about them from watching video," Bernhardt said. "But on the pro side you know the guy because he's been around."