Jack Button uses a computer to do his job, but technology can take you only so far in the pursuit of a future 50-goal scorer or a goalie who will stop the opposition cold in the seventh game of an NHL playoff series.
"Selection, recruitment and development of players is an art and never will be a science," said Button, the Washington Capitals' director of player personnel and recruitment.
When the National Hockey League conducts its annual entry draft today in Montreal, it will mark the end of the work year for Button, assistant Sam McMaster, half a dozen scouts and a few "bird dogs" in Canadian outposts such as Moose Jaw and Peace River.
By his reckoning, Button spends only about "15 working days and a month at training camp" in the Washington area during the course of the year. There just isn't enough hockey being played in this tropical climate to justify packing more than one suitcase when he leaves his home in Pierrefonds, Quebec. Actually, last summer he had to make a trip even farther south, to that hockey hotbed, Baton Rouge, La., to watch American players at the National Sports Festival. "Too hot," he grumbled.
The NHL draft is similar to other professional sports drafts in that teams pick in the inverse order of how they finished during the regular season. So in Saturday's draft, in which 252 players will be chosen in 12 rounds, Detroit will have the first pick in each round and Edmonton the last, barring any last-minute trades. Washington will pick 19th.
The NHL draft is different in a number of ways. One of the major differences is that players can be drafted from many different leagues and levels of play, including Canadian junior leagues, both A and B, U.S. high schools and colleges, and European leagues.
Eligibility is based on age. Players who will be at least 18 before Sept. 16, 1986, are eligible. "The age groups are those kids born in '66, '67 and '68 prior to Sept. 16. That last group is the most sought after because they haven't been eligible before," said Button.
Players on Canadian junior teams are generally eligible to play junior hockey until age 20, which is the earliest a player can join the professional minor leagues.
Once a player is drafted, the club has until the following June to offer him a contract. If the club decides not to offer him a contract, the player then is eligible to be selected in the next draft. Once a club does offer a contract, it has another year to sign the player.
If a player with junior eligibility remaining is not drafted and does not sign with an NHL team, he is eligible for the draft the following year. If a player without junior eligibility is not drafted, he becomes a free agent.
There are a couple of exceptions. European players can be drafted at any age, but they cannot be signed to contracts unless they are drafted. Canadian or American players who are not drafted can be signed by a team. Also, if a team drafts a college player, the team has until one year after the player leaves school to sign him, regardless of the number of years he remains in school.
The Ontario Hockey League, with such teams as Peterborough, Toronto and Kitchner, has been the leading source of NHL players.
"It's like Notre Dame," Button said of the OHL. "If I'm scouting college football players, I go there before going to Bridgewater State or whatever. But, by the same token, a poorer player looks better on a better team and an average player looks worse on a poor team. So it's a bit more difficult to scout players on mediocre or poor teams. You have to look at all the factors, one being the intensity of the competition."
Button said he thinks this year's crop of American players is strong, although the draft as a whole is not.
"There are 12-14 American kids who could go in the first two rounds," Button said. "I mean true blue American kids."
Button may make a couple trips to Europe during the course of a scouting year. There are a couple of "windows," as he calls them, to view European players and others. "This year, it was important to go to the Izvestia tournament in Moscow because the Canadian Olympic team was there and they have three players who will go in the draft."
In 1984, the Capitals used their 11th-round pick to select Mikhail Tatarinov, a Soviet defenseman, on the off chance the Soviet government might allow him to play in the NHL. That didn't happen, and Button doesn't think it's likely to happen.
"There's a whole bunch of them who could do very well," Button said. "But it's hard enough to get into the country to watch them play, much less get them out of the country to play here. The Czechs are in the same boat."
Unlike the NBA or NFL drafts, in which teams expect to get a player, or players, who will provide immediate help, the NHL draft, like that in baseball, is geared to the future.
"In the 18-year-old draft," McMaster told a recent gathering of Capitals fans, "you're looking at three or four years from now. For one thing, you're really dealing with 17-year-olds and they're just not ready. You're not looking for instant help."
Occasionally, a player has the talent to go from the draft directly into the NHL -- the Capitals' Bob Carpenter being an obvious example. But a draftee who can immediately help a team is a rare commodity.
"I suppose the closest is in Pittsburgh, but they still haven't made the playoffs," Button said of the Penguins, who selected Mario Lemieux as the top pick in the 1984 draft and, this season, were contending for a playoff spot until the final weekend.
"Mario who will be 21 this October was learning the first year. This past year, he was a player. But there is a big difference between just playing in the NHL and really contributing. Mike Gartner played right away when he was 20 1979-80, his first year with Washington , but you have to say he was a heck of a lot better when he was 25."
Button said the days of the freak discovery -- the 50-goal scorer who is found as the result of a scout's car breaking down in some small town -- are long gone.
"Doesn't happen," Button said. "Communication is too good. Back in the '20s, maybe, but not now. Although, once I did get a letter from a guy who said he knew about this kid who nobody else had heard of and that I could come up and sign this kid if I gave him $30,000."