June 03, 2011
TORONTO — The NHL Scouting Combine — the part the media is let in on — is a bit of curiosity. No one denies it is now a staple in the hockey calendar.
Truth be known, how many times a 17- or 18-year-old NHL draft prospect can bench-press 150 pounds is of debatable worth at best, which is probably good news for someone such as Jonathan Huberdeau. That's all part and parcel of an event that is evolving rapidly, even though it's not immune from some refining. While all 30 NHL teams ascribe varying amounts of important to each test the 101 prospects here this week will be put through, there are three metrics that should be taken to heart.
"It's questionable whether a lot of these tests do translate," says Matt Nichol, the strength and conditioning guru who's been part of the Combine for nine years. "I believe that the tests of explosive leg power have been shown to be correlated to someone's skating ability. The vertical jump, the standing jump, the peak power on a Wingate, those have been shown to correlate to skating power. Obviously there's more to hockey than skating, of course.
"Every team has a different philosophy on the testing and each test within it," adds Nichols, whose sports success stories include 2010 Olympic gold-medal bobsledder Heather Moyse. "Some would put a lot of stock in the bench press, some would put none. These kids are coming to the biggest job interview of their lives, you would at least hope if someone did 4-5 repetitions, hopefully it was two or three more than he could do last year and that he's working toward something better.
For the record, Portland Winterhawks forward Ty Rattie and Shawinigan Cataractes defenceman Jonathan Racine tied for Friday's highest score (15.9) in anaerobic peak power output during the Wingate test, which closely parallels the short bursts in which hockey played. (All results are here.)
"There is a lot to be said for finding a true test of athleticism," Nichol says by way of explaining the importance of the standing jump and vertical jump. "You want to find out what kids are athletes and thus have the potential to do better."
The only thing lacking from the week of physical tests and teams meeting with players is, of course, seeing anyone on skates. Nichol notes it is might be a little difficult just to have players on the ice ("the logistics behind that are impossible, you had 100-plus players, some kids who finished their season two-and-a-half months ago and some who finished last week"). A more constructive method, he says, would be to find tests that are more hockey-specific.
Even if the combine never involves players taking the ice, it's growing in importance each year, especially as off-season filler for fans of the 28 teams not in the Stanley Cup final.
"This is probably 100 per cent better than it was 10 years ago," Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney says. "I think eventually some on-ice component might be needed, in three, five, 10 years down the road. I think it's coming. Every year, you see more cameras ... It's just evolved like everything else in sports, the media attention with being in Toronto with all the sports networks. It's become an important part of even selling the game where you're know looking at players at age 17 who people are going to start to know and track."
Maloney, whose Coyotes' challenges in the southwest U.S. are well-documented, notes the combine is a great service to the core fans of NHL teams in markets where hockey isn't a 24/7 obsession. It might not pull in the casual fans, but the diehards love it.
"This does get out into the masses," Maloney says. "A lot of the hardcore hockey fans have that all the time. They'll see an Adam Larsson or a Tomas Jurco and they'll start thinking of the name. We're all looking for more exposure. The entertainment dollar is so competitive, so anything we can do for fans is welcome."
Landeskog among the workout warriors
So, in Nichol's considered view, who tore it up on Friday?
"There were some guys that really impressed me," he says. [U.S. national team development program defenceman] Connor Murphy did really, really well, [U.S. NTDP forward] Tyler Biggs was impressive. [Northeastern University defenceman] Jamie Oleksiak, very impressive.
"I think a lot of the scouts were really surprised with Gabriel Landeskog," Nichols adds, referring to the Kitchener Rangers captain. "He looks like man with kids here. [Youngstown Phantoms defenceman Scott] Mayfield was one of the first, he looked like he had some power in some legs when he jumped. He has a big frame too."
That said, for all the advancements in sport science in recent decades, NHL teams still have make a lot of educated guesses when they take notes on 17- and 18-year-old players. The difference in appearance among players with birthdates between Sept. 16, 1992 and Sept. 15, 1993 is stark — for everyone man-among-boys remark about Landeskog or his highly touted compatriot Adam Larsson, there's at least one that potential No. 1 choice Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks much younger than 18 years old. That's especially true with the timing of the event, coming more than two months after the end of the Canadian Hockey League regular season, but less than a week after the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Maloney noted, for instance, some of the Saint John Sea Dogs prospects might not have "touched a weight in five months" since they were playing until last weekend.
"To me, this whole combine is a piece of puzzle," Maloney says. "You have to be careful with how much emphasis you put on the physical development or lack thereof of the players. It's about gathering more information, more data, determining what kind of growth potential a player has, does the growth translate into this game?"
In other words, it's all about sifting through it to find the right information, which is a lot better than playing a gut-instinct game like in the old days. Nichol noted that was the vision of late NHL Central Scouting director E.J. McGuire, who died of cancer earlier this spring at age 58. McGuire's loss from the hockey world is irreplaceable, but he is survived by something fans and media content-producers eagerly anticipate.
"This whole thing is a testament to the late E.J. McGuire," Nichol says. "It is his baby, his project. He really, really grew it. It's leaps and bounds beyond what it was the first year I came. It's not the NFL combine, but it's heading in that direction."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.