The Art of Scouting: No Science and Precious Little Art Here

Jim Nill, Assistant General Manager, Detroit Red Wings, agrees that predicting how a player will develop, and if he will at all, is one of the toughest parts of amateur scouting.  The varying development cycles of prospects, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, too, all make amateur scouting a head spinner.

The Art of Scouting, Shane Malloy: John Wiley & Sons (2011), p. 17.

Many of my difficulties with Shane Malloy’s The Art of Scouting are in evidence in the passage from the book quoted above.  These criticisms relate to matters of both style and substance.  Malloy’s effort is stricken by so many technical issues, for example, that one might seriously question whether anyone at Wiley & Sons was tasked with editing the manuscript.  Proper names are – maddeningly and inexplicably – italicized throughout the book.   I know of no other work of literature in the English language that observes this convention.  Don’t even get me started on the haphazard manner in which punctuation is deployed; commas in the above-noted passage, typical of the work on the whole, appear to have been applied with the degree of care and precision that one generally associates with the use of a potato gun.  Content-wise, did I really just read a (tortured) sentence that struggled to relate to me a piece of un-information, namely that one of the hardest parts of amateur scouting is predicting whether an amateur player will be any good in the future?

The Art of ScoutingWhatever, right?  Nobody reads a hockey book for the writing.  It’s ultimately about the hockey content, isn’t it?  For the record, I disagree.  I can think of at least three hockey books off the top of my head that I consider to be enjoyable primarily on account of the writers’ craft.   The writing need not play a starring role, perhaps, but without skilfull storytelling and clarity of expression the reader’s immersion in any subject material is inhibited.   The importance of a certain amount of technical merit is underscored by its absence, when (as in this book) that is the case.  Frequently awkward and almost juvenile, Malloy’s  text is from an aesthetic perspective frankly something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Obviously, though, the marquee feature of a book about scouting, especially one that is subtitled “How the Hockey Experts Really Watch the Game and Decide Who Makes It”, is the promise that a light will be shone on the obscure habits and arcane methods of the (mostly anonymous) bird dogs in scouting circles.  In this regard, it must be said that – as perhaps the passage quoted above might suggest – Malloy’s book fails almost as spectacularly and almost as completely.

The concept of the book is, in my opinion, a strong one;  it is in the execution of that concept that this book falters.  Malloy is, according to the jacket on the book, a columnist and broadcaster who has been covering hockey prospects “for the past decade.”  He is apparently a co-host of Hockey Prospect Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio, though I have never heard of either the show or the author.  I gather that he has been involved in scouting for some time.  His concept was to take what he had learned about hockey scouting and complement it with the wisdom of others;  as a member of the scouting fraternity, Malloy was able to interview his peers and hoped to get them to talk about what exactly it is that they do for a living.  I was very excited by the notes on the book jacket  (a work of “tremendous substance” according to Doug Wilson; an inside look at what scouts do, per Bob McKenzie); I thought that I might enhance my ability to watch hockey critically by reading about what exactly it is that the scouts look for when evaluating talent.

Sadly, the book mostly fails to deliver any specific technical information in that regard.  For the most part, the information conveyed is either insultingly obvious (do I really need a flowchart to explain that typically, a team’s Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting reports to the Director of Amateur Scouting and “assists [him] with all of his duties”?) to the only slightly less obvious (scouts apparently look to see if a prospect can skate fast with the puck) to the  maddeningly uninformative (a section comes to mind in which readers are told that scouts are always on the lookout for prospects whose hands are “too high” or “too low”  on the stick – without giving any real guidance as to what parameters are preferable.)   In truth, what Malloy accomplishes is merely to set out a laundry list of issues or concerns that scouts typically look for – quickness, puck sense, decision-making, skating ability, physicality, etc. – without really delving into how physically the scouts watch for these things.  My complaint about the book is that as a former (rec league) player and follower of the sport, given half an hour and a pencil, I probably could have come up with at least 95% of these issues or concerns on my own, and you could too;  what I wanted was some insight into how the scouts identify those who possess the desired qualities while watching underdeveloped prospects compete against inferior opposition.  Not much of that was forthcoming.

Consider the section Malloy devotes to skating.  Like most of the specific attributes singled out for discussion in this book, skating is first said to be “one of the hardest” qualities for scouts to assess (page 113).  The general proposition that Malloy seems to advance is that few players in the cohort scoured by the scouts are possessed of a “perfect”, mechanically sound skating motion, and that the problem facing scouts evaluating young players, therefore, is identifying which players’ skating motion will be good enough, or successfully improved, to permit the prospect to achieve success in the NHL?  Malloy then says (at p. 118):

Most scouts and fans can see the players who don’t bend their knees or who are knock-kneed, but it’s the other little aspects that are harder to figure out.  When Jay Heinbeck is watching a player’s stride, he’s looking for a hint that the flaws aren’t going to be an issue moving forward.

“I often try to look at the the stride itself and the mechanics of it.  Is it the type of stride that strength and practice can improve? Or is that stride always going to hinder him, with little window for improvement?”

This passage begs the question:  what “flaws”, specifically, in the stride will be “an issue” moving forward?  What “type” of stride is susceptible to improvement through practice and the addition of strength?  What “type” of stride is not a candidate for this improvement?  These questions scream out for an answer, but questions such as these slip by unanswered in rapid fire succession throughout the book.   Ultimately, this passage collapses into an assertion of evaluation through unarticulated criteria – a reliance upon those with experience alone as judges.  If it is impossible to articulate precisely what components of the stride scouts look to for the answer to this question, it amounts to an assertion that they simply rely upon comparisons spontaneously brought to mind from patterns previously imprinted in their memories.  If that’s really all there is to scouting, it is no wonder that athletic scouts struggle so mightily to identify the talented among us in every sport.

The format of Malloy’s work is grating: peppered liberally with direct quotes from his sources, the text often reads as though these quotes are mere restatements of the general propositions with which Malloy has introduced them.  It would have been preferable for Malloy to vastly reduce the number of direct-quote passages and instead to write more analytically, synthesizing the information obtained from his sources into a more comprehensive and intelligible whole.  The continuous statement and restatement of more or less obvious observations – introduced first in a sentence or two by Malloy, then reiterated in a quoted passage from his industry source –  leaves the reader with the impression that far too many platitudes have been relied upon.  Consider the following pasage, from page 186 in the section on Goaltenders:

Corey Hirsch believes that the ability of prospects to play through minor injuries is a must in today’s NHL.  He points out that the larger goalies have an advantage in absorbing physical punishment.  The susceptibility of the smaller goaltender to injury is a serious consideration for scouts.

“The ability to play through injury is an aspect that we look at, and it seems the bigger goaltenders tend to be more durable these days with the crease crashing.  Although, as a scout you never want to completely rule out a smaller goaltender with ability.”

It is not surprising to me that scouts (and, by extension, their NHL organizations) want goaltenders who are durable, and that larger goaltenders might be believed to be more likely to survive the rigours of the pro game.  I certainly didn’t need to be told about this twice in consecutive paragraphs, particularly where the quoted passage is, in actual fact, much more ambivalent about the necessity of size for a goaltender than Malloy’s introductory statement would have you believe.

The general impression left by the book is that Malloy’s insiders only tell you that things like skating, passing, physicality, hockey sense and will are all important to them, that all of these are difficult or challenging to assess, and that nothing of value can be said about any of them that would assist someone  to reliably identify what observations of an individual might be made to identify those possessing the requisite level of skill and those without.  The overall effect is that writing about scouting seems – with apologies to Martin Mull – to be a little bit like dancing about architecture.

That general impression is unfortunate, first because it is difficult to believe that the proposition is accurate – it must be possible to articulate with some precision the desirable aspects of skills that are, in fact taught through verbal instruction by coaches in rinks across the country.  Second, it is unfortunate  because there are some informative specifics in this book, but these sections appear sporadically and tend to be obscured by the format of the text and the surfeit of generalities.  Through reading this book, for example, I learned that scouts look at whether a prospect alters the distance from his body at which he carries the puck (closely in traffic, further away and more out front of the body when on the rush).

My overall assessment of the book is that it represents a decent first draft of the book that should’ve been written on this subject, organizing the structure of the information to be imparted, but a first draft that represents nothing more than a statement of the problem to be tackled by the text, and in dire need of aggressive editing and a significant re-write at that.  I believe that an editor would wholly excise the chapter devoted to the “memorable” pranks played by scouts on one another – spoiler alert: they are not memorable at all.  What they are is thematically unrelated to the rest of the book; awkward and unentertaining, they ought to go.  An editor would drastically reduce the number of directly quoted passages, and would demand that Malloy provide some specific and concrete details in the areas of interest identified by scouts.  To be expanded would be sections on the steps pro clubs are taking to enhance their institutional efforts to assist players in their development and a tantalizing but all too brief segment about the use and development of some software called RinkNet – a scouting information database apparently used by 29 out of 30 NHL teams¹ (page 52).   Without these efforts, the book for the most part disappoints the reader hoping for help in revolutionizing the way he or she watches the game.


¹How the hell could Malloy include this sentence in the book without going on to identify the lone technological holdout among the big league clubs?  How glaringly obvious is the fans’ desire to know which of the 30 teams is too cheap to shell out for a tool that every other club has found invaluable?


1 comment to The Art of Scouting: No Science and Precious Little Art Here

  • Thank you; your review says it all. Those italics drove me nuts (if you really have to do such a thing, why not boldface the names on first appearance and then treat them like normal text thereafter?), and they weren’t even wholly consistent; usually they were there, but sometimes not. Speaking as one who works in that field, it’s one of those books where I really wish I’d had the chance to get my hands on the manuscript before it went out. And, as you said, it was frustratingly short on specifics. It could have been so much better than it was.