GLENS FALLS -- About a month ago, a pro scout in the Civic Center press box offered an opinion on one of the Phantoms' defensemen. The scout had seen him play quite a bit, and let's just say he wasn't a fan.
The next night I overheard a scout from a different organization discussing the same player. When the conversation ended, I told one of the parties what I had heard the night before, assuming it was more of the same.
No, I was told. This scout was high on the player and had been for some time.
Same player. Two nights. Two scouts. Two completely different opinions.
One of the questions American Hockey League reporters get all the time is "how does so-and-so look?"
With prospects, there's always curiosity because few people have seen them play yet. The mystery allows hope to spring eternal.
My new stock answer when I get that question is to repeat the above story. If those paid professionals - both former NHL players, by the way - can't come to a consensus on a player, then what is my opinion worth?
That's not to say all judgments are invalid.
You don't need to be an expert to recognize Matt Read and Brayden Schenn are light years ahead of the curve. It's also no coincidence that several of the players fans rode the hardest during the first season are no longer in the league.
But most players, to me at least, inhabit a middle ground that allows for the kind of different perceptions you see in that scout story. There are so many variables that impact play at this level.
For one, you're not dealing with finished products. Part of the reason these guys are here is to make mistakes. Growth seems to happen in fits and starts rather than linearly.
Look at Zac Rinaldo, for example. If you believed this time last year he'd be holding down a steady NHL job by playing disciplined hockey, you should probably play the lottery.
Players that are 20, 21 years old just don't have the same consistency you see from veteran players. From game to game, heck, even play to play, you may see a completely different player.
Then there's the nature of the play, which is often more ragged than the NHL product.
Counterintuitively, a lot of players - particularly goalies - coming back from NHL stints say they actually found the game easier at the higher level. The same is true here for players coming up from the ECHL.
The higher the level, the more often players remain in position, the more often they stick to the systems, the less often they have to cover for other players.
I often find when I watch NHL games that it's easier to identify the breakdown that led to a goal - of course, the benefit of instant replay helps, too. Things are just less chaotic.
Kevin Marshall - not the defenseman in the opening anecdote - is an interesting case. As a stay-at-home defensive guy, I always thought his game might translate better in the NHL than it does here.
He's at his best when things stay simple, but with the Phantoms he was occasionally forced into roles where he had to do more. With the Flyers as a sixth defenseman, he can keep a narrower focus. And so far, so good.
Marshall was always particularly hard to evaluate. For an Erik Gustafsson, it's easy - just look at the stat sheet or his power-play production. But how do you judge how well a defensive defenseman is playing?
There are some useful advanced statistics - think sabermetrics in baseball - but we can't even get time on ice here let alone all you'd need to compute a Corsi Number (Google it). Plus-minus just doesn't cut it anymore.
I always enjoy the blizzard of Tweets that accompany summer prospect camp - which consists largely of drills - heaping praise on players or ripping them, as if how they skate around cones is going to translate to wins.
We're impatient; voracious for information on who the next great player will be. That's understandable. But unless you're one of those can't miss guys, these things take time.
As Marshall said, sort of pleadingly, when someone brought up he had spent a lot of time - two seasons - in the AHL, "I'm only 21."
Patience isn't sexy, especially when everyone's opinion is a breathless Tweet away. (I saw one this week asking if Brayden Schenn was an NHL bust. He's played six games.)
There's no substitute for time, and that's the plain-old, boring truth.
Tim McManus may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (@PSPhantoms) and visit his Phantoms Forum blog online for daily updates and breaking news.