Lightning Scout Talks WHL Draft Drought, Seth Jones, & More

If NHL dynasties are built from the ground up and within, scouts may be the most underrated pieces of the process. Sure, they get their hat-tips at the draft, and some get to share the stage with the recognizable faces of the franchise, but for the most part they go about their work watching 200 games a year and writing countless player reports without fanfare.

As prospect followers, we’re big fans of these unrecognizable faces.

Brad Whelen, an amateur scout for the Lightning in western Canada, was featured on The Pipeline Show this week, giving us a chance to at least put a voice with a name.

Run by Dean Millard and Guy Flaming and based in Edmonton, Alberta, The Pipeline Show is in its ninth year covering hockey prospects at all levels.

A former head scout with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, Whelen is one of four amateur scouts with the Lightning and covers the Western Hockey League, as well as the four Junior A leagues in western Canada (BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL), and some Canadian university hockey.

He told TPS he does not do any crossover scouting, meaning he does not see players in Ontario or Quebec and doesn’t watch NCAA or high school games for the Lightning. Whelen said the Lightning’s head scout, Al Murray, and its head amateur scout, Darryl Plandowski, do the crossover work for the club. Murray is based in Whelen’s territory, residing in Regina, Saskatchewan.

With two scouting staffers living in WHL territory, it’s curious how the Lightning haven’t drafted a WHL player since its last pick in the 2010 draft, Teigan Zahn – a span of three drafts.

Whelen, who is just entering his third year with the club, answered our submitted question about the topic, saying it’s just a coincidence.

“Yeah, [that’s] just the way it rolls there,” he said. “The [comprehensive rankings] list is made up and at the time of our picks the west guys weren’t in position, so with some experience in major junior and seeing how it happens, some years they draft two or three guys from a certain area and then the next, maybe couple or two or three years, you don’t get any. You still have to do the work, you still have to write the reports, and make sure the organization is aware of the players in your area and make sure you present the list to the best of your ability.”

Incidentally, the Bolts took three WHL players in 2010, Brett Connolly (first round, Prince George), Radko Gudas (third round, Everett), and Zahn (seventh round, Saskatoon).

While the Lightning haven’t drafted any western prospects in the last three years, they did sign a prominent one in that time – Tyler Johnson (Spokane, WHL) in 2011. Johnson was a free agent who went on to win last year’s American Hockey League MVP with Syracuse, and he is expected to push for an NHL spot this fall.

One WHLer who could follow in Johnson’s footsteps is right winger Brady Brassart of the Calgary Hitmen. Brassart was a free agent invitee to the Lightning’s prospect development camp in July and was invited back to participate in the upcoming Coral Springs prospect tournament with Tampa Bay. He's searching for a contract.

Whelen knows Brassart well as he was with the Hitmen when the club traded for Brassart in 2011 from, coincidentally, Tyler Johnson’s Spokane Chiefs.

We asked Whelen – via TPS – what Brassart could offer the Lightning organization.

“I think he’s a bigger bodied forward that has some offensive ability,” Whelen told the show. “I think his game has kind of come around here in the last year and a half. I think he started slow in Spokane and then [was] traded to Calgary and has been given a little bit more opportunity in a scoring role and he’s been able to do it, scoring [25] and 30-some (35) goals this past season, so, yeah, I think he has some offensive ability and he’s a 6-1 1/2 player.”

Flaming interjected, opining that Brassart was “probably Calgary’s best player against the Oil Kings in the [WHL] playoffs.”

“Yeah, he had a good run,” Whelen said. “I think he scored nine goals in the playoffs and he just kind of solidified himself as a top tier offensive player in the Western League. He has really come a long way in working on his consistency, too – he was really kind of up and down as a 17-year-old so that’s probably what kept him from being drafted.”

Flaming asked if Whelen's thumbprint was on Brassart’s invitation from the Lightning.

“Yeah, he’s a player that I like,” Whelen said. “We have our player development guy for Tampa, Stacey Roest, who’s from Vernon [British Columbia] and Brady’s from Vernon so he has some familiarity with him there and skates with him in the summer, so he likes the player and the attitude and the work ethic. It’s kind of a combination of everybody getting him [to Tampa].”

Whelen shared some of the intricacies of scouting, from seeing about 200 games a year to sitting at the draft anxiously watching a targeted player fall to his club’s slot.

“There have been a couple of those [moments],” he said. “On a couple of occasions we’ve had a Western Hockey League player available, and in my first draft we ended up trading a fifth round pick and not being able to select him and he went 5-6 picks later.”

Whelen wouldn’t share the name, but we’ll try to figure out who it was.

Whelen’s first draft was 2012, when the Lightning traded their fifth round pick to Boston with Michel Ouellet for Benoit Pouliot. Boston took – again, coincidentally – a player Tampa Bay had at a previous rookie camp, Seth Griffith of OHL London. Three WHLers went in the next four picks after Griffith before the next one went off the board 23 picks later.

Those three WHL players were Logan Nelson (C, Sabres, WHL Victoria), Branden Trook (RW, Stars, WHL Seattle), and Graham Black (C, Devils, WHL Swift Current).

Black, an overager, was a tenacious forechecker with a lot of speed and Trook was coming off extended injuries and was thought to be considerably better than his draft position. Our guess is the player was Trook for the excitement level getting a prospect of that caliber in the fifth round could bring, but it’s nearly irrelevant now.

The Lightning nearly broke their WHL-less draft streak this year in the first round when super-prospect defenseman Seth Jones of Portland was on the board at No. 3. The Lightning took dynamic winger Jonathan Drouin of QMJHL Halifax instead.

If Whelen was upset with the decision, he sure didn’t sound like it.

When Flaming asked him about the difficult choice, Whelen quickly, calmly, and matter-of-factly stated Drouin was above Jones on the Lightning’s list.

“We liked Seth as a player, and we had Jonathan Drouin ranked higher and come our pick that’s the way we made the selection,” he said.

Jones’ availability, though it may have been a surprise, didn’t change anything for the Lightning’s staff.

“We followed the list,” Whelen said. “We put the list together over the course of the season and that’s the way we ran it.”

Whelen’s connection to the Lightning didn’t start with a paycheck. While head scout in Calgary he drafted defenseman Andy Rodgers, whom Jay Feaster and the Lightning took in the first round of the 2004 draft. Whelen found future NHL first rounders for the Hitmen like Jeff Schultz and Karl Alzner – both eventually chosen by Washington. He was also on staff when the Hitmen took future NHL All-Star Ryan Getzlaf.

Whelen no doubt hopes he’s part of future first round gems and all-stars like Alzner and Getzlaf for the Lightning, but the average fan may not even notice if he is. Such is the life of a scout.

For more from The Pipeline Show, please see thepipelineshow.com.