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Scouts lend NHL teams a big assist

As tomorrow's NHL trade deadline approaches, rumors are rampant. Florida's Jay Bouwmeester is going here. Anaheim's Chris Pronger is going there. The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to deal everyone except their public-address announcer.

As tomorrow's NHL trade deadline approaches, rumors are rampant. Florida's Jay Bouwmeester is going here. Anaheim's Chris Pronger is going there. The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to deal everyone except their public-address announcer.

Et cetera. Et cetera.

There is a group of unappreciated men - scouts - who will play a major role in deciding the destination of those players and many others.

Most of the scouts type evaluations on their laptops as they watch the games from high above the rink. On those same laptops, they can watch various players on video clips so readily available in today's information age.

The availability of instant video on players - and teams - has slightly reduced the number of scouts employed by teams.

But it hasn't made them obsolete.

"I cannot see the intangibles on the videotape," Vancouver Canucks scout Lucien DeBlois said as he watched the Flyers play in Boston recently. "You cannot see the little things. The video follows the puck, basically, so you don't see what's going on behind the play and how players react and read the play. You don't see how a player reacts when he goes on the bench."

That, he said, "is why there are still a lot of us around."

"There are a lot of advanced-technology programs out there that teams have the option to buy, and help you make decisions," said Nick Bobrov, a scout for the Los Angeles Kings. "The NHL is now entering into the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball realm of advanced scouting. There are programs that do just about anything imaginable, from individual players to systems to coaching."

He paused.

"But live viewing is still important because you still have that feel for the game," Bobrov said, adding that scouts might see things that cannot be seen on video, such as "what's happening on the bench, personal relationships that you might be able to pick up on, who's liked and who's not. You can see the body language and interactions between teammates on the bench."

Edmonton Oilers scout Dave Semenko, who recently made a trip east and watched the Flyers and their AHL affiliate, the Phantoms, agreed.

Scouts give their coaches and general managers a perspective that you can't watch on your computer or TV screen, he said.

"Some players play differently if it's a physical game; some play differently if their team is ahead or behind," Semenko said. "They're things you can't see on video."

Bobrov was taking notes on several Flyers as he watched them play the Bruins recently. It was logical that goalies Marty Biron and Antero Niittymaki - both of whom, oddly enough, played in the game he scouted - were among the players who interested the Kings.

Bobrov said the Kings' goalie situation was "still a question mark, because obviously Jonathan Quick is very young and [Erik] Ersberg is relatively young and inexperienced, so that's an issue that remains to be dealt with. Maybe these young guys will take the bus and drive it."

Or maybe the Kings, whose head coach, Terry Murray, is familiar with Biron and Niittymaki from his time in Philadelphia, will make a pitch for one of the Flyers' goalies.

The Flyers have said they don't expect to make any major moves by the trade deadline. Still, Florida general manager Jacques Martin was in Philadelphia on Wednesday to watch the Flyers play the Kings.

In each of the last three seasons, NHL teams have made a staggering total of 25 deals on trade-deadline day.

Dave Brown, the Flyers' director of player personnel, didn't think there would be as many moves this season.

"This year, because of the recession, some teams are having problems making money, and I think it will have an effect" on how much they can spend on players, Brown said.

Former Flyers defenseman Mark Howe, a longtime scout for the Detroit Red Wings, lives in Jackson, N.J., and attends several games at the Wachovia Center each season.

Having video on opponents is nice, but seeing them in person "gives me more of a gut feeling" on the players, Howe said. "And the more instincts you have, it helps the general manager make a more educated guess" on trading for a player.

Scouts' observations can also have a major impact on game strategy.

"I know for a fact that we've come back with three or four things that the coaches just cannot pick up on video . . . and it can make a difference," Howe said.

Howe recalled the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, between Detroit and Washington. The Red Wings' scouts noticed that the Capitals "had a big tendency that would happen in a certain stage of the game," Howe said.

"And in Game 2, we're down by two goals and the coaches said, 'We're going to go with what the scouts found and maybe try to pressure completely different than we would anybody else.' "

The scouts had found that the Caps, under pressure, would "never, ever, move the puck up the middle of the rink," Howe said. "And that was over a course of the 13 or so [playoff] games we saw. So what we did on our forecheck - we had nothing to lose - we had one forechecker come from the middle, and we just pressured both wingers and both [defensemen], and it left the middle of the rink wide open.

"They never once made a play. They'd come up the boards, and we outnumbered them on the walls and we got the bounces, and the puck kicked into the middle of the rink and our guys were there, and we scored the goals."

Detroit overcame a 3-1 third-period deficit and won in overtime, 5-4, en route to a four-game sweep.

As for making trades, Howe said he and two other Detroit pro scouts would see a player in as many as 15 games before deciding whether to acquire him.

"If we're seeing the guy is playing 13 to 14 good games out of 15, I like that number," Howe said. "But if I see the guy is playing good in five of 15, you tend to lose a little interest. It becomes a coach's nightmare."

Brown, the Flyers executive, said that he and his coworkers - including Don Luce, the director of player development; general manager Paul Holmgren; and the team's three pro scouts - all try to watch a player they are considering in a trade.

"We want as many opinions as possible so we can make the correct decision," Brown said.

Howe said that video had its place and that it was extremely useful for coaches as they put together a game plan.

"The coaches look at the wrap-up video right after the game, and then if you're traveling somewhere on a plane right after the game, they're doing a pre-scout on the video for the next day already," he said.

In other words, a coach has many more tools than he would have had in the days of, say, Fred Shero.

"Coaches look at the video, but if they had the time, they would prefer to be there at the game," said Semenko, the Edmonton scout. "Video follows the puck, but the play away from the puck is just as important, if not more important."