Behind the scenes of the Winnipeg Jets amateur scouting department

By TN Staff | June 26, 2023

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Even though the National Hockey League Draft only lasts a couple days, the work leading up to it takes place for more than a year before the first name is even called.

And once those names are called, it’s already on to thinking about the next season’s prospects for Winnipeg Jets Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Hillier and his team of North American and international scouts.

“The players we draft, they’re now the responsibility of our management and development people,” said Hillier. “The scouts move on to next year’s draft.”

And so goes the cycle of trying to identify the next generation of Winnipeg Jets.

It’s a cycle Hillier is familiar with. He completed the Sports Administration program at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont. in 1990, and the school had an internship program with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time. He was selected for that job, and it kept him involved in the game he loved.

“I started working on the business side in public relations, media relations, assisting the hockey operations, scouting, coaching, management – I kind of had my hands in everything,” said Hillier. “They sent me to manage the minor league team in St. John’s for a couple years, then I started a scouting career after that.”

Hillier has been in the scouting world since 1995-96. He spent seven years in Toronto (three as the Director of Amateur Scouting) before joining Atlanta in 2003. When the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, Hillier stayed on, and eventually came to his current post at the beginning of the 2015 season.

Over the years, he’s seen scouting change a lot. Technology is likely the biggest area of change, but he said it’s helped his staff of eight amateur scouts – and Jets management – stay in touch and on the same page.

There has typically been two scouting meetings per year – one at mid-season and the other ahead of the draft in the summer. Now that everyone has learned the ease and productivity of virtual meetings, the group is able to convene far more frequently.

“In a couple hours of a Zoom call, it’s like having a meeting every couple of weeks,” Hillier said. “You hear from the different scouts in different areas and get the information from their area, get updated on who is trending up or down, or what we have to adjust.”

The scouts on staff are split into regions to help search the globe for the best players eligible for that year’s NHL Draft.

“We have a main area scout in the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, in the US, a head scout in Europe, and other scouts in the different countries in Europe,” said Hillier. “We’ll go from there, putting together lists of each area, and I determine where the crossover scouts go at a specific time to see where the best players are and where most of the players are after that.”

Based on how players are performing over the course of the season, Hillier and his staff adjust their schedules to either get more viewings or see as many players in one location as possible.

Again, that’s where technology comes in.

“When I first started scouting, there was no internet,” he said. “If you were going to a game in a certain place, say you were going to Peterborough – a couple hours from Toronto – and you were going to see a particular player, you’d pick up the phone, phone the coach or the manager in Peterborough and ask if the guy was playing, ask how the weather is up there – you didn’t want to run into a storm, ask what the player’s stats were.

“All that information you can get with a click of a button now.”

By the time the draft rolls around – whether it’s in-person or virtual – Hillier, his staff, and Jets management have spent hours fine-tuning their list. When the team is on the clock, they’re ready to select the next Cole Perfetti, Nikolaj Ehlers, or Kyle Connor.

Of the 14 first round picks the Jets have made since relocation, 11 have played NHL games for the team, with only the most recent three – Chaz Lucius (2021), Rutger McGroarty (2022), and Brad Lambert (2022) – yet to make their NHL debuts in the regular season. They’re getting closer though, McGroarty had a strong freshman season with the NCAA’s Michigan Wolverines with 18 goals and 39 points in 39 games, while both Lucius and Lambert made their pro hockey debuts earlier this season with the Manitoba Moose.

Hillier doesn’t spend much time checking up on that, though. He has work to do.

“It’s nice when you see a player whom the staff have drafted, and he has success with your team,” he said. “We don’t get any emotional involvement with the players. We just draft them and hope they do well for themselves, for the organization, then we move on to the next year and do it again.”

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