Aaron Venasky’s job duties resemble some of the Yes/No flowcharts that often pop up on social media.
Are you hungry? Yes. Is it after 10 p.m.? Yes. You want fast food. No? You’re out of luck.
The categories on Venasky’s flow chart aren’t memes. They relate to hockey players, and he goes through those questions dozens and dozens of times every hockey season.
Is this player worthy of using an asset (a draft pick or a tender) to acquire? Yes. OK, do we use a draft pick or sign him to a tender?
Does the player want to play junior hockey? Yes. OK, initiate a conversation with him. No? I’m out of luck. Move on to the next player.
“We’re a Tier II team and a lot of guys have the goal of playing Tier I, in the USHL,” said Venasky, the head scout and director of player personnel for the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League. “The hardest part for me is, where is that line? We like guys who are in that gray area where a guy could be a Tier I player, but maybe he slips to us.”
How exactly do Venasky and his team of scouts who are spread across the country determine which players are the right players to bring to Austin? Sometimes it’s a gut decision, but a vast majority of the time there are weeks or months — sometimes years — of homework done on players.
“You try to get feedback from college coaches and USHL coaches,” Venasky said. “Is this guy a lock to make your team? If he’s not an absolute lock, he might be a guy we continue to follow. But if we bring him in and he ends up going back to the USHL, we don’t get an asset back.
“The hardest thing isn’t evaluating the best players in the country, the top 1 or 2 percent. What makes it difficult is finding the guys in that next tier. All these kids have areas of their game they need to work on.”
Venasky, who played three seasons in the USHL followed by four seasons of college hockey at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, is a former assistant coach at Lakeville South High School. He primarily scouts the Twin Cities and Minnesota for the Bruins.
“We have regional scouts across the country, too, in Chicago, Michigan, North Dakota,” he said. “They give me thoughts and data on players coming from their region. It’s up to the coaching staff and me to decide if they’re guys we want to go after.”
Like most scouts, Venasky doesn’t discard his files on a player if that player signs with or is drafted by another junior team. He often has two or three years of notes on a player that can be beneficial, even if the player doesn’t immediately sign with or get drafted by the Bruins.
“We start looking at guys who might be ready (for the NAHL) in two years,” Venasky said. “Where does he stack up? Is he a guy we draft? A guy we sign to a tender? Or a guy we invite to tryout camp?
“My day-to-day is scouting for the future … We also watch guys who could be on the waiver wire or the trading block. The Bruins staff will reach out to me if we’ve watched them previously. At the same time we might have to move a guy from our squad.”
‘Be better today than yesterday’
Venasky isn’t scouting on an island. He’s often at rinks where other junior hockey and college scouts are watching the same players. That gives him opportunities to advocate for Bruins players who are looking for college scholarships, or a chance to play NCAA Division III college hockey.
“A lot of the rinks I’m at, the college guys are all there, too, whatever school you can think of,” he said. “They’ll come up and say ‘how’s so and so doing for you? Is he a D1 kid? D3? A ’tweener?' There’s a lot of that conversation. I see them a lot at Elite League games or at a AAA showcase. They’re always asking, prodding.
“I’m happy to pass along info about our players.”
The biggest message that Venasky makes clear to players, whether they’re drafted by the Bruins or sign a tender to play for the team is: Don’t get complacent.
“I’ve seen guys get lackadaisical, get a little comfortable in their spot because they got drafted,” he said, “but there are a lot of free agent guys out there who we miss and they’re hungry to win roster spots. Sometimes they leapfrog asset players. At the end of the day, I tell players all the time they have to find a way to be better today than yesterday because someone else did for sure, either your teammate or the competition did.
“There’s a limited number of spots and it’s really competitive to get one of those.”
Venasky said, all other things equal, the Bruins are looking for mentally tough players who can shake off a bad shift or a bad game and rebound by outworking their opponent the next time out.
“If you’re out of the lineup one night, how hard are you going to work the next day to get back in?” he said. “At the end of the day we want to help the Bruins win a national championship and a player has to be the right fit.
“You’ll always get the benefit of the doubt if you’re one of the hardest working players on the ice.”