Blackhawks’ Mike Doneghey on Draft Approach, Finding Hidden Gems and More – NBC Chicago

Q&A with Hawks director of amateur scouting Mike Doneghey originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The 2022 NHL Draft is a few weeks away, and the Blackhawks will have a new leader in the driver’s seat for the first time since 2008 after former chief scout Mark Kelley was let go in March.

Days after he was named the Blackhawks’ permanent general manager, Kyle Davidson appointed Mike Doneghey to serve as the interim director of amateur scouting, but the interim tag was quietly removed shortly after. That means Doneghey is here to stay, and he’s looking forward to putting his own stamp on Chicago’s draft class, along with Davidson and associate GMs Jeff Greenberg and Norm Maciver.

In the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Doneghey opened up about his draft philosophy, the process of building a draft board, finding hidden gems in the later rounds, being ready for a potential first-round pick and much more.

Here is the full transcript from the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity: 

Since taking over the amateur scouting situation, we’ve heard Kyle discuss looking for the up-tempo speed players that play with a high motor and have a high compete level. Has that philosophy been the mantra of the scouting department?

Historically or just since Kyle took over?

Since Kyle took over.

It’s very direct from Kyle, Norm [Maciver] and Jeff [Greenberg]. It’s speed, speed, want to play as fast as we can play, as direct as we can play, as quick as we can play, so that has been the whole dialogue since back in March. Let’s get as fast as we can going forward.

Have you been watching the way Colorado plays and some of the teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and say, ‘That’s how we want to play?’

Yup, it’s Colorado, even Tampa. Colorado’s on another level with their speed, how fast they are, how fast they are down the middle. So if we can replicate that over the next little bit, then I think a lot of people will be very happy.

Any other changes in how you’re having the [staff] scout or how you approach the draft board as we get ready for the July 7-8 draft?

I just think the big thing is, early on, just kind of keeping an open mind for best players available. The last few years we’ve drafted a lot of defensemen, so everybody automatically thinks we should be drafting forwards just to kind of get everybody on an even playing field. So early on, the direction has been let’s look at the best player available that we can get and maybe it is a defenseman.

Sitting with Kyle and Norm a lot lately, they’ve got a certain way they want to play, speed being one of them, competitive inside. So when we’re talking with the scouts, we just keep reiterating, who are the most competitive players? Who have the most character? Who can play the fastest? And it’s just been an open dialogue of constant communication, using the same verbiage and everybody talking on the same page.

We had this question lower on the list but I’m going to bump it up. You mentioned targeting specific needs vs. best player available. Is that your mentality, take the best player available? And how do you caution looking at the organizational pipeline and saying, ‘Maybe we could use a forward or a defenseman’ and not let that creep into your psyche when you’re trying to [take] the best player available?

I think the directive, you want to build down the middle and on defense and in goal. Your centers and your Top 3 defensemen and your goalie are probably your most important positions. So maybe we get late in the first round this year and the Top 2 centers aren’t there but there’s a defenseman staring at us in the face that can be a puck mover, one of a kind organizational defenseman and you don’t want to leave that type of player there just because the seventh center on your list is available and you’re hell-bent on centers, so you have to be open to what might fall to you and be ready for it.

You don’t have a first-round pick now but Kyle’s been open saying he could make a trade and acquire a first-round pick, so how do you prepare for the first round when you don’t have a pick but you could fall somewhere top to bottom in that first round?

We’ve had these conversations. We have to prepare that we’re picking 1 all the way through 224, because maybe we package two picks to get into the late 20s, so we have to know those players. We have to know as best as we can, as equal as we can, from 1 all the way through, knowing that Kyle and Norm and Jeff, they’re trying hard to get us in that round to get going in the right direction, so we’ve got to be prepared for all scenarios.

I just spent time over at the World Championships watching three players in [Juraf] Slafkovsky, [Simon] Nemec and [David] Jiricek that are going to be gone in the Top 10, but I wouldn’t like my first draft [with] Kyle looking at me and saying, ‘We just got the ninth pick, who do you like?’ And I hadn’t seen three of the players, so you most definitely have to prepare, and the scouts have been great in being prepared. And that’s why we’re here, we want the best picks that we can.

We’ve heard in years past, the tiers in the first round. Do you kind of have a [sense] this year? Is it a Top 4 this year and then it drops off?

Yeah, it’s definitely tiered. It’s been unique the last two years as the world has been with COVID. There’s a couple players that we talked to this year who missed all of last year, they couldn’t play, whether their league was shut down. So we tier it, but also knowing that in five years, those tiers could look a heck of a lot different than they do on July 7th and 8th. So the tiers this year, it’s a smaller group in the top tier vs. in years past and that’s probably just based on the unknown of a lot of guys missed some critical development years that they’re going to catch up at some point.

I know we’ve heard a lot of draft analysts say that next year’s draft, at the higher end, it’s a much deeper class than this year. How would you characterize this year’s depth though? When we get beyond maybe the top three guys, is part of the reason why this class isn’t getting enough attention because there were some lost developmental years because of COVID?

See, I laugh when I hear that type of stuff because I’ve been doing this long enough and you’re dealing with 17-year-old kids, right? So to say that it’s a weaker draft this year or it’s not as deep. How do you know? Duncan Keith went in the second round. Corey Crawford went the second round. Dave Bolland went in the second round, all in spots where we’re picking. [Nikita] Kucherov went in the second round. In five years, you might come back and say, ‘You know what? That 2022 class was pretty good because there’s so many guys playing.’

I know what they’re saying next year, there’s more high-end next year, more franchise players next year, at least right off the hop here. But if history tells us anything, there’s going to be some players this year that are taken after 20-50 that are going to be impact players in the NHL.

Is there a position that this draft has depth in? Is the international player more intriguing at times because you’ve got more game action from them to go over?

I think the international pool this year, there could be 15 to 17 players that go in the first round from Europe. (And I say Europe, there’s a couple players playing over here in North America that a European that could fall in that). So I think the international pool is as good as and as deep as it’s been in the last few years.

You obviously mentioned on hitting on some of those later-round picks like the Kucherovs and we’ve seen some superstars like Adam Fox and Brayden Point who weren’t first-round picks. Do you ever go back and study those drafts and say, what did everyone else miss that we can maybe get ahead of the curve and try to identify those qualities in players that might be available this year?

We do it every year. You can’t do the previous draft, so you do go back three to four years and we pull up old lists. We don’t just do it for our team. We’re saying, ‘OK, why did David Pastrnak fall to the Bruins? What, in that year, was the red flag that dropped him a little bit? And obviously now if you redid that draft, he’s a Top 5 player.

You go over all different things. You look at Jeremy Swayman with the Bruins, he went in the fifth round and now he’s a starting goalie in the NHL. The value of a starting goalie puts him in the Top 20 in that year. So we’re always constantly, what did we do right? What did other teams do right? Did we miss something? It’s the only way you’re going to get better. It’s a learning exercise.

With COVID, it certainly presented a lot of challenges. As you mentioned earlier, some leagues didn’t play at all, some played limited schedule. So obviously, you’re not dealing with the same database that you are in other years. Has that brought any different approach, more time interviewing prospective players, talking to coaches, going through different means to evaluate players because you don’t have all the game footage that you’ve had in years past?

Yeah, I think our scouting staff does a really good job of leaving no stone unturned and the Rolodex that our guys use as far as other coaches, agents, strength coaches, teachers, guidance counselor. I had a guy on our staff Friday night that went to dinner with a family of a player that we like just to kind of dig into that family background and dynamic. So we’ve kind of found different unique ways.

We used to before, if there was three players on one team and we went out to dinner with them, we’d take all three together. Now we’ve changed that where we take one player out at a time and we put them in uncomfortable situations to see if they can hold a conversation with an adult, to see their character and all that stuff. So we’ve found unique ways to get as much information as possible because of the lack of viewings. And it’s everything.

We couldn’t get into a lot of buildings over the last two years, even though some leagues were playing, so there was a lot of video scouting and a lot of Zooms — too much to be, to be honest with you. It’s a different world when you have to pick players strictly based on video. But yes, we found definite, unique ways to get the most out of these players.

We talked about how you guys currently don’t have a first-round pick. Let’s just say hypothetically, it stays that way. How much pride are you taking into those eight picks that you have, specifically the five in Rounds 2-3 and say, ‘Alright, let’s go out and identify the next Duncan Keith or Niklas Hjalmarsson or Corey Crawford’ and actually maximize those later round picks, and what is the process of trying to find those hidden gems?

I mean, the one thing about our scouts is the passion level that they have for players in their own area. So they are always going to push players in that area, in those picks. Norm Maciver and I were talking, and when we addressed the group in April, one of the teams that we talked about is Carolina and three of their better players. Sebastian Aho, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin were second, third and fourth-round picks. So the players are there, and we can’t take anything for granted, especially where we are in the current times.

So with having those five picks from 38 to 94, there’s going to be players of value there that I think the group has done a good job of identifying. We have some traits that we’ll look at later in the sixth and seventh-round because we don’t have a fourth and fifth-round pick, whether it be size or skating or maybe throwing a dart at a kid because he’s behind the curve. But those five picks, I think just huge value in them.

Take us behind the curtain just as you guys build this draft board. In years past, you’ve met at a hotel in downtown Chicago, everyone’s together and you kind of vet players out. Is that the way it’s going this year or is it more Zoom based?

No, it’s more important in-person now and I think the guys were looking forward to more in-person. Like I said, the last two years, there was no NHL combine. This year at the NHL combine live, we interviewed 67 players, person to person, and then we just did a couple of Zooms for the players that were still in the CHL that were invited to the combine but couldn’t get into the combine because they were still in the league playoffs. But for the last two years, we’ve interviewed 90 players a year on Zoom, which was just, it was torture. So we definitely did a lot more in-person this year.

The combine was great. Going forward, depending on if we can get in the first round, we might have a few more interviews up in Montreal, but we’ve met three times since March as a group, we’ve had the NHL combine, Paul Goodman and his staff, the strength and conditioning coaches, were in at the combine doing their reads on the players. So it’s definitely been way better than it has been the last two years.

I’m curious how you’re personally approaching this draft. You have the interim tag on you and this is obviously a crucial draft, especially if you guys do get into the first round. Are you approaching this as a potential tryout?

No, because thankfully, Kyle took that out of place. So they removed the interim tag. When Kyle made the changes in March, they moved me interim just to have somebody in place when we were going into initial meetings. It was more interim, not on a trial basis, it was contract and logistics and getting everything up to speed. So I’ve been out of the interim since about the third week of March. It wasn’t long after the announcement that he removed the interim tag.

Congrats then!

Well, thanks. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Kyle for a lot of years, so little did I know it was an interview process for those years. But I think he’s got a lot of trust and faith in me. I’d be more nervous if it was an interim tag still, but I’ve got confidence in my ability, so I really wouldn’t worry about it too much.

We thank you for doing this, Mike, and good luck with the draft. And we’re looking forward to seeing some of the future Blackhawks that you guys select in Montreal.

Awesome, guys. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

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