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'Natural passion' drives Ryan Jankowski in leading Sabres' drafts

As prospects mill around the bustling Buffalo Waterfront and reporters gather inside the quiet KeyBank Center atrium for the 2019 NHL scouting combine, Ryan Jankowski emerges from a nearby hallway.

Jankowski, amid his second combine as the Buffalo Sabres' director of amateur scouting, had spent the afternoon conducting one-on-one prospect interviews in preparation for his second draft, which will be held June 21-22 in Vancouver.

Jankowski speaks excitedly and animatedly, detailing how his scouting staff has evolved since he was hired in July 2017 and the Sabres' drafting philosophy. While its playoff drought reached an NHL-worst eight seasons, the organization's scouting department has been universally praised for its drafting under General Manager Jason Botterill.

Yet, Jankowski, the man at the center of it all, once wanted nothing to do with scouting after watching his father, Lou, immerse himself in the job.

"I said to my dad, ‘I don’t want to do what you did; I saw how much you were away and how much you traveled," Jankowski, 45, told The Buffalo News.

Road trips

Lou Jankowski was a dynamic forward during his 18 productive seasons of professional hockey, including 127 games in the NHL and parts of four years with the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL, and was named the Western Hockey League's most valuable player after scoring a record 57 goals in 1961.

Following retirement, Lou began a lengthy scouting career that included a 15-year stint with the New York Rangers. Ryan saw how many nights Lou spent on the road, traveling to old rinks across Western Canada in search for talented junior players.

Once every four months, Lou would sit at the family's kitchen table and handwrite scouting reports before sending them to New York via FedEx or fax.

Ryan had a passion for the sport and enjoyed joining Lou for scouting trips, observing how his father dissected the game and analyzed prospects. Ryan began to enjoy attending these games more than attending his own hockey practice. He was enthralled by the idea of being around hockey as a career, watching top prospects and future NHL stars such as Joe Sakic and Theo Fleury.

Ryan earned a chance to scout for the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers, yet he vowed to not follow his father's path because of all those nights away from home. That changed once he tried his hand at the profession.

"Then I started going to rinks – I finished playing, just a Junior B career in Western Canada and Calgary – and watching hockey; it was natural," Jankowski continued. "That’s how I grew up, on the road with him driving to Lethbridge or Medicine Hat or wherever it was. Going right in Calgary, watching the Wranglers play at the time and that’s what I wanted to do, watch hockey and know all these good young players."

One of his first contacts was current Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. Jankowski was 21 years old and working part time at Hockey Canada's main office, when he asked Babcock, who was then coach of the WHL's Spokane Chiefs, to see if the team's GM, Tim Speltz, was in need of a scout in the Calgary area.

Speltz was impressed with the knowledge Jankowski acquired watching Lou, as well as the connection with Hockey Canada and happened to be looking for someone to fill the role. Scouts in the league worked on a part-time basis, watching bantam players and future opponents.

Despite the knowledge and Hockey Canada connection, Speltz didn't sense any arrogance from Jankowski, who instead was open-minded and eager to learn, willing to listen to different perspectives and able to properly communicate why he gave positive marks to a prospect.

"The first thing he wanted to do was work," Speltz, now the Maple Leafs' director of amateur scouting, said in a phone interview. "He wanted to go to games. That was the most important thing. It’s tough to get information without having that passion, so I think that’s the first thing.

"Secondly, I do remember he wasn’t afraid when asked to have an opinion. None of us are always right, but he told us what he thought, what he liked and what he didn’t like. At the same time, he wasn’t welded to what a player was. He was very flexible to learn, so I think at that time, he understood he was a young guy on our staff. For me, I sure thought Ryan was ready when he got his opportunity in the NHL and I wasn’t surprised at all."

NHL promotion

Jankowski wasn't viewed as a young staff member for long. He spent six seasons as a scout with the organization until the first NHL opportunity arrived. Jankowski spent one year working part time as a Western Canada regional scout with the New York Islanders.

Once hesitant to travel for the job, Jankowski was promoted to head European scout, a role that required him to move to Prague, Czech Republic. Upon arriving at his new home, Jankowski was given his first experience running a scouting staff, coordinating with regional scouts and learning the European game.

Jankowski learned about the different player development models across the globe and observed how prospects differ from country to country, an experience he called "invaluable."

"Certainly Ryan understood the requirements and the work ethic that was required and found his way in," Craig Button, TSN analyst and former NHL general manager, said. "He’s a smart guy, he’s a bright guy. He’s a thorough guy. He’s a thoughtful guy. ... [Going to Europe] worked out great for him. I think it speaks to how passionate he is. He’s got an expansive background. He’s got one where he understands all the different cultures, the different hockey cultures around the world."

Jankowski was promoted to assistant general manager prior to the 2005 season, his first opportunity running an NHL scouting department. He ran five drafts during his tenure with the Islanders, beginning with the selection of current Sabres winger Kyle Okposo seventh overall in 2007.

A number of Jankowski's draft picks with the Islanders have developed into productive NHL players, including Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic, Jared Spurgeon, John Tavares, Calvin de Haan, Anders Nilsson, Anders Lee, Nino Niederreiter and Brock Nelson.

Jankowski spent five years in the role until his contract wasn't renewed. Following a two-year stint as a scout with the Montreal Canadiens, he was hired to be head scout for Hockey Canada, a "dream job."

The role forced Jankowski to evaluate a swath of players, hand-picking rosters for international tournaments, including the World Junior Championship and IIHF U-18 World Championship, and evaluating talent beginning with 16-year-olds in Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence. His four-year tenure included a silver medal at the 2017 U-20 World Junior Championships, which featured a roster of players whom he scouted for years.

The role added to Jankowski's scouting knowledge since he watch players progress through each level during critical stages of development on and off the ice.

"You’re building teams, you’re trying to understand what allows teams to have success, what kind of players you need as a group of 20 to give a team success at the international level," Jankowski said. "It’s not how they are in five to 10 years and that’s the biggest difference between that job and this job. With this job, we’re projecting. We need players who are going to be at their best when they are 25 to 27 to 29 years old. ... It was a great four years of my life, but it was also cool to come back to the NHL. The NHL is a Stanley Cup. It’s about bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo and finding the best players to help this organization have success."

On to Buffalo

The call back to the NHL came in July 2017, when then-recently hired Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton chose Jankowski to run a scouting model Sexton and Botterill crafted during their tenure in Pittsburgh.

Jankowski's arrival was one of double-digit changes made by Botterill and Sexton to the scouting staff. Most of the adjustments were made following Botterill's first draft in which the Sabres selected center Casey Mittelstadt, goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and defenseman Oskari Laaksonen.

That gave Jankowski almost 11 months to implement a new scouting model and develop chemistry within the staff for his first draft with the team. All involved were aware of the basic character traits the Sabres wanted in prospects, as well as the type of skill sets they were searching for.

"You get 15, 18 people in a room full of passion, really believing in the players in their territory and trying to get them in the right spot on their list so we can get them; it can get a little unruly," Sexton said. "I think Ryan has done a terrific job eliciting opinions, generating communication, fostering collaboration and listening.

"A lot of leaders like to do all the talking and Ryan is certainly no shrinking violet on his own opinion, but I think one of the greatest strengths he has as a leader is he listens. He has tremendous listening skills."

With the help of returning scouts, including Jeff Crisp, and additions such as Ron Pyette from Pittsburgh, the Sabres' first draft under Jankowski received high marks from analysts and executives from around the league.

In addition to selecting Rasmus Dahlin first overall, the Sabres landed four defensemen, including Mattias Samuelsson, and forward Matej Pekar, who is expected to play in Rochester next season.  The group strengthened a prospect pool that was lacking following draft failures by former general manager Tim Murray.

"It starts with somebody who is passionate about the sport, had a great, great teacher in his dad who gave him a model in terms of work ethic, and Ryan is really, really smart," Button added. "Those experiences he’s had serve him and the Buffalo Sabres really well."

That was only the beginning for Jankowski and the Sabres' scouting staff. Chemistry built over nearly two years helped streamline the process preparing for the upcoming draft, Jankowski said. During one-on-one prospect interviews, no one was wondering who would ask the next question.

Despite recent scouting success, the Sabres are approaching this draft with the same fervor as the one in which they acquired Dahlin. The organization's burgeoning group of prospects has not lessened the importance of drafting future NHL players in the early and late rounds, the latter was previously a weakness for the Sabres.

The goal is simple: acquire prospects whose development curve trends in a positive direction until they are ready to come to Buffalo. Jankowski and his staff were given their first taste of scouting success with Dahlin's immediate impact last season.

"That’s the fun part," he said. "That’s only going to grow. There are only going to be more of those players coming here. What’s the pride like? I don’t want to say it’s like a son, but it’s like a nephew having success. That’s what the players are. They mean so much to us because we dedicate so much of our time to the process. You only get seven picks a year, give or take one or two.

"All of your effort is into those seven players you’re going to bring and you’re projecting and predicting they’re going to be Buffalo Sabres. When they do step on the ice here it’s everything because that’s what we’ve worked towards."

The Sabres currently own eight picks over seven rounds at the upcoming draft, beginning with the seventh overall selection. The future success of the franchise can depend on the outcome of a year's worth of scouting. One botched draft can set an organization back.

The pressure is immense, yet this is a role Jankowski has been working toward since those scouting trips with Lou.

"It was a natural passion and I’m really proud to say I followed in his footsteps. And I’m also proud to say he never really got me a job," Jankowski said. "I kind of did this on my own, worked on it, went to rinks, watched hockey, made contacts and it was a natural thing for me to do."

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