Seven years ago, Marshall Johnston and his staff had a problem.
Johnston, who was then general manager of the Ottawa Senators, owned the 21st pick of the 2000 draft.
The front office debated between two prospects: American defenseman David Hale and Russian blue liner Anton Volchenkov.
It was Johnston's call, but he learned in New Jersey, where he was director of player personnel, that you trust your chief amateur scout. Frank Jay, who held the position at the time, in turn listened to his man in Russia -- a former Red Army scout who hardly spoke English.
Watching all this was Peter Chiarelli, then Ottawa's director of legal relations. Under Johnston's command, Chiarelli was making his way into hockey operations, learning his boss's team-building philosophy.
"I'm not saying anything new," said Johnston recently, "but there's no question that scouts are important. I learned that back in New Jersey. Our mandate from ownership was that we weren't going to get involved in free agency and we weren't going to get involved in a lot of trades. We were going to build this thing through the draft."
On June 24, 2000, Ottawa drafted Volchenkov, one slot before the Devils picked Hale, following a process applied to a handful of other selections who have since developed into the core of the Eastern Conference champs.
Chiarelli was officially named the Boston GM on May 26, 2006. But because he wasn't released by Ottawa until July 10, Chiarelli couldn't take a hands-on role in last year's draft when interim GM Jeff Gorton shook the hand of No. 5 pick Phil Kessel's hand.
This weekend, Chiarelli will lead his draft team into Columbus's Nationwide Arena, guided by the principles espoused by an organization that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, turned teenage meat markets into as close a science as they can be.
Johnston, now director of pro scouting for the Carolina Hurricanes, was on the Ottawa payroll for five drafts, including the banner 2001 crop in which the Senators selected center Jason Spezza (No. 2 overall, a pick obtained via a draft-day theft of the Islanders), goalie Ray Emery (99th), and forward/defenseman Christoph Schubert (127th).
That year, with Jay making the calls, the Senators also picked defenseman Tim Gleason (traded to the Kings two years later for ex-Bruin Bryan Smolinski) at No. 23, forward Brooks Laich (dealt to the Avalanche in 2004 for sniper Peter Bondra) at No. 193, and current Bruin Brandon Bochenski at No. 223.
"Great draft," Chiarelli recalled. "There are a lot of people who were involved, but our chief scout has to get a lot of credit. Spezza was a no-brainer. But it's the Schuberts and Brooks Laiches -- he's a gritty guy -- those are the types of players you need in your organization, the guys that are home-grown and want to play there. That's what we're trying to accomplish here."
The year before, the Senators were intrigued by the hard-hitting, defense-first Volchenkov, who stood in contrast to the typical skilled, offensive-thinking Russian products. But they also liked Hale, a 6-foot-1-inch American defenseman.
Boris Shagas, hired by Johnston as Ottawa's Russian scout, wanted Volchenkov, but he never saw Hale play. Ottawa's US scout followed Hale but didn't see Volchenkov. It was up to Jay, who had scouted both players (along with another unnamed Russian prospect under consideration), to pull the trigger.
"You have to use common references, lowest common denominator," explained Chiarelli. "You have to use all the common viewings. That's how you get who you're after. Best-case scenario is that all your full-time scouts see everybody. But you can't do it because it muddies the water and you can't focus on your own territory. Boris has been a scout for a long time and knows what it takes to get to the NHL. He was very strong in his opinion, but the chief still has to make the call."
In 2006-07, Volchenkov led the NHL with 273 blocked shots, was third in plus-minus (plus-37), and fifth in hits (205). Hale was traded Feb. 27 along with a 2007 fifth-round draft pick by the Islanders to the Flames for a third-round selection in this year's draft.
While Ottawa was hitting home runs, Boston was stumbling. In 2001, the Bruins selected defenseman Shaone Morrisonn with the 19th overall pick, then packaged him in 2004 in a trade that brought puck-rusher Sergei Gonchar from the Capitals. This past February, Washington stole another 2001 Boston pick by obtaining defenseman Milan Jurcina (241st overall). Andrew Alberts (179th) is the only 2001 selection playing in Boston.
The year before was even more disastrous. With their two first-round picks, the Bruins took defenseman Lars Jonsson (seventh) and forward Martin Samuelsson (27th).
Jonsson never dressed for Boston and most recently signed with the Flyers. Samuelsson played 14 games for the Bruins and played in Sweden in 2006-07. None of the 10 other 2001 picks is playing in Boston now.
"You look back on that and you wish we might have gotten [Los Angeles forward Alexander] Frolov out of that draft," said director of amateur scouting Scott Bradley. "That's a draft that we stick by our decision of taking Jonsson. It didn't pan out. That happens."
There are five categories for each prospect, with Boston scouts providing a 1-through-5 ranking based on a particular viewing: skating, hockey sense, puck skills, I/T (intensity/toughness), and shot. There is also a category for scout's comments, including these excerpts about a top-ranked prospect who could be the first pick Friday:
"I think he's ready to play right away. Creates time and space as good as I've ever seen. Creates leverage and is dangerous all over the ice. Has some Crosby in him that when he gets trapped or off balance, he still has the ability to create. Had selective skating tonight, but when he wants to jump, he has that ability. Has a change of gear, which makes him more dangerous. Obviously he has to continue to get stronger. But his balance is excellent."
On average, prospects will be viewed 10-20 times -- with more emphasis placed on tournament and playoff games -- in the season leading up to their draft date.
Chiarelli also encourages his scouts to pull aside prospects for character assessments. The Bruins, like every other team, conduct interviews during the annual combine in Toronto. Two weekends ago, they invited five prospects to Boston for testing and interviews.
"Information," Chiarelli said, "is gold."
The danger, however, is too much information. Chiarelli recalled that Ottawa scouts were efficient by narrowing their target list and watching prospective fifth-rounders with as much emphasis as top-flight players.
"I know for a fact that this happens: If you watch a player too many times, you end up poking holes in that player," said Chiarelli. "Especially with an elite guy, you may love the guy when you start out. But by the end, you hate him because you've seen him too much.
"What I've seen is that scouts who are confident in their assessments don't have to see guys too many times. But they have to see them at the right time. And they know when the right time is."
The Bruins, however, can't include themselves among the better-drafting clubs with Ottawa, Anaheim, Detroit, Buffalo, San Jose, and Nashville -- teams that score early and fill out their rosters with late-round picks.
For future drafts, Chiarelli is considering hiring a psychologist, as the Senators did, to interview prospects. The Senators once retained a statistics professor to analyze and project production. But perhaps the biggest lesson he learned from Johnston was maintaining the sanctity of his list.
This weekend, Chiarelli wants no surprises. Ideally, as they head into Nationwide Arena, Chiarelli, Bradley, and their team will know the players they want and refuse to stray from the list.
When the Bruins make their first selection with the eighth overall pick -- if they don't trade out of the position -- Chiarelli will turn to Bradley to make the final call. At that time, the GM will employ perhaps the most important aspect of drafting: trust.
"Hopefully, we've got all our stuff in order here," Bradley said. "I trust my scouts. Peter trusts me. If a decision will be made, great. We'll make it."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at FShinzawa@globe.com.