100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Monday, January 29, 2007

They Honestly Believed He’d Still Be There: Draft Story

Caught the game at St Mike’s yesterday afternoon, Plymouth beating the Majors 5-3.


Went because I wanted to eyeball one player, Tommy Sestito. Why I wanted to catch him requires a little explaining. Humour me.

The backstory: Last spring I asked the Columbus Blue Jackets if I could sit in their war room prior to the NHL combine and draft. Nobody had ever been given that type of access over the long haul—Sportsnet shot in Columbus’ room for a bit a while back and Carolina had given a camera crew a glimpse years back, but on the print side … nothing. I asked politely. The Jackets’ GM and I had always gotten along. I explained that I wanted to show readers how a scouting operation made up its list. At an entry draft you see the guy with the microphone in front of him at every team’s table scoping out a working list of 100 names, maybe more. I always wondered what went behind that list—how a team put together something with that many moving pieces. And when I say “many moving pieces” I don’t just mean the 100+ names on the list. No, you have to factor in the dozens of names left off the list and the hundreds of conflicting and competing opinions in a roomful of scouts. The Jackets gave me the green light. And that’s how I ended up spending, well, a conservative estimate would be about 80 hours behind closed doors with the Jackets.

You can find the story that came out of it in ESPN The Magazine last July. The story focused on the Blue Jackets’ selection of Derick Brassard of Drummondville with the No. 6 pick. It also focused on the Jackets’ interviews with Phil Kessel, which were rocky, to say the least. Kessel would have gone No. 2 in the draft the year before but his stock had taken a dive because of some disappointing play and some bad buzz. Some of that buzz was deserved (caught up in a Minneapolis television station’s sting of a bar that was serving under-age students, including U Minn players) and some perhaps not.

It’s a tough story to write—like I say, there’s hundreds, even thousands of moving parts in that war room and I have to focus on just a small number of players just because I have limited space in the magazine. The story that I didn’t write was Tommy Sestito. Maybe in time it will turn out that his story was the one I should have wrote.

Columbus' draft last spring:


Sestito's lines:


(that's rich: Suspended 5 games for situation vs. Windsor (1/13) .)

Sestito wasn’t invited to the NHL combine, which is a way of saying that NHL Central Scouting didn’t have him in the top 100 prospects eligible for the 2006 draft. I can assure that he was in Columbus’ top 100—without giving away too much of the Jackets’ list I can tell you that they had him in their top 50. (Which only starts to hint at the disconnect between Central’s list and those of teams around the league.) More than that, though, Sestito had pockets of strong support in the room—they got excited every time his name came up. Some players in the top 30 were ho-hummed in the room … they were respected but nothing to get enthusiastic about. Sestito, though, another story. ‘Twas a puzzle to your embedded reporter. Especially when I saw his numbers for the 05-06 season, 10 goals & 10 assists in 57 games. What to get excited about? Especially when they clearly liked him more than guys who played in the OHL all-star game or CHL Prospects game.

Day of the draft: I’m sure that they’re going to find a way to take him. Columbus’ second pick comes ‘round, I write Sestito’s name and hand it to one of my cronies on press row. “This is the guy,” I say. Then Columbus passes over him. I uttered a profanity and was the butt of a joke. Until the Jackets took Sestito in the next round. You know how teams say: “We can’t believe our luck. We never thought he’d be there.” Well, flip that on its head. The Jackets got the player they wanted and got him a full round later: They were counting on him still being there.

I got to see what the fuss was about at St Mike’s yesterday. This kid Sestito is a load, a freakin’ giant. James Neal, Sestito’s Plymouth team-mate, was the muscle up front for the Canadian team at the world under-20s this year—the biggest forward, easily the biggest hitter. Neal (a goal, two assists and a decision over Rob Kwiet in the second period) was the best player on the ice for Plymouth yesterday, a team that might make some noise in the post-season. Well, when Sestito scored the insurance goal in the third period, Neal came over to slap him on the back … and had to reach up. Neal is a helmet shorter than Sestito and Neal is listed at six-three.


The increased production notwithstanding (he's on pace for 40 goals) Hard to say where Sestito’s game is. Really it’s sort of shift-to-shift. A big guy who hasn’t figured out how to use his size—or at least not on every shift. He shows flashes out there. He’s not a great skater (he’s a bit bolt upright) but you can see that might come around a bit with some work. His read of play isn’t a strength either. But he’s massive and he’s plays hard. The fact that he was the Whalers’ first choice to be on the ice for a 5-on-3 PK probably says something about the coach’s confidence in him.

The doors of the NHL are now supposed to be open to the little man, thanks to the rules changes. But NHL guys love size—always have, always will. Okay, I’ll say it: Size matters. Classic story about the Flyers, famously the most size-obsessed franchise. One Flyer exec once said his definition of a prospect was “a guy who can stand flat-footed and shit in a pick-up truck.” And when you look at the breakthrough of a guy like Dustin Penner in Anaheim you have to presume that size is never going to be held against you. Fact is, with giants like Penner and Sestito size buys them time. A team will be more patient with the big player, presuming it takes him more time to get his act together.

Funny thing, the bygone days didn’t have the likes of Chara, Hal Gill, Penner and other contemporary giants of the game. Auriel Joliet wouldn’t have just put the puck between their skates, he’d have stick-handled through. I remember when Bob Dailey was a giant with the Marlies. Now at 6’4”, maybe 6’5”, he’d be a big guy but no giant, not out of the box. I’m going to have to find one of the scouting elders who can tell me what prevailing opinion was back in the day. I’m sure that in days of yore guys like Sestito and these others would have been considered too big to play the game—some sort of bunkum about bad backs, like the old NFL teams that thought weight-lifting made players muscle-bound.

Fine print … there was a considerable ruffling of feathers in the Kessel camp over the ESPN story … fact is, if Kessel had been available at No. 6 the Jackets would have taken and the execs with Columbus noted in the story that they weren’t sure all the negative buzz was deserved … Brassard’s season has been pretty well written off by an elbow injury … absolutely packed at StMike’s for Latvia Day … joint was jumping … St Mike’s has a Latvian kid in their line-up and his countrymen pour out (“pour” being the operative word) every game … the Majors have had a hard time making a go of it on operations … looks like nothing more Latvians wouldn’t cure … Latvian national team sweaters = Peterborugh Petes' marroon ... on giants, they always used to talk hoop guy Ron Crevier playing in Q junior at six-nine …