The 2009 NHL Combine took place last week in Toronto. Although the event officially ran from May 25-30th, some players took part in an entire week of events, which included tours of the city and a baseball game. Each year the Combine grows, as the NHL and its sponsors see it as a way to promote the league. This year, the sponsors were more involved in showcasing their wares, and activities expanded to several floors at the hotel venue. One hundred and four player-invitees took part in the event, undergoing a grueling number of interviews, as well as psychological and fitness testing.
There was a bit of a scheduling change this year, in that the player interviews were conducted from Monday through Thursday. Fitness testing took place on Friday and Saturday. This separation of interviews and testing allowed the players to concentrate on one or the other, and avoided issues that arose in previous years, when some of the players were running from their Friday fitness testing to interviews. This was a particular concern for NCAA-eligible players, who can only be in attendance for 48 hours. This year all the college-bound players arrived on Wednesday and Thursday, had their interviews on those days, and then fitness-tested on Friday.
In another change, this year’s medical testing included the administration of an echocardiogram to each player. After the tragedies that befell both Mickey Renaud and Alexei Cherepanov, the NHL decided to be proactive in the detection of any heart issues. Happily, according to NHL Central Scouting Director EJ McGuire, no heart problems were found among the players who were in attendance. But had any such issues arisen, players would have been referred to their own cardiologists for further evaluation.
Most of the invited players had 20-minute interviews with at least half of the 30 NHL teams. The questions seemed pretty standard, and every player that Hockey’s Future spoke to had previously prepared for the interview portion of the Combine. One surprise to some of the athletes was the questioning about previous drug use, which seems to have been a part of almost all interviews.
The fitness testing began early Friday morning, and it immediately became apparent that 2009 was the year of the tattoo. Several players had multiple tattoos on their arms and torsos, and a few displayed body art on their backs. This was in stark contract to the past few years, in which only one or two players had tattoos.
As far as the testing went, several of the shorter players stood out positively. Eden Prairie High School defenseman Nick Leddy was one of the most impressive in the vertical leap, and he had an excellent wing span for his size. Not the broadest of players, Leddy was finely tuned, with one of the lowest percentages of body fat among all attendees. Leddy also showed his strength — his right hand grip rivaled that of players 4 to 5 inches taller.
Another Friday standout was NTDP forward Kyle Palmieri. One of the shortest players invited to the Combine, Palmieri was among the strongest. With a very developed physique, Palmieri did extremely well in those tests that measured strength. He led all attendees in number of push-ups, pull strength, and the vertical jump. He was also among the top five in push strength and the leg power tests.
Although both Leddy and Palmieri created significant buzz among the scouts and GMs in attendance on Friday, nothing at this Combine created as much stir and attendance as Friday afternoon’s testing of the two top prospects in this year’s draft — John Tavares and Victor Hedman. It has been awhile since the name of the No. 1 pick in the draft was as uncertain as it is in 2009, and there did seem to be excitement about the comparison between their performances. Of the two, Hedman was more impressive in his testing and his physique, however, Tavares did hold his own. It is still not clear which of the two would be chosen first overall by the New York Islanders later this month.
On Saturday the testing room was not as crowded as on Friday, but some of the performances on the testing were just as impressive. One of the better performers was defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. A top player in the recent U18 World Championships, Ekman-Larsson had one of the best scores on the wingate, which measures aerobic fitness. Now considered a top-ten, and perhaps even a top-five, prospect in this year’s draft, Ekman-Larsson is a player to watch. Also moving up in the scouts’ eyes and not hurt by his testing was Drummondville blueliner Dmitri Kulikov. With very broad shoulders, and a highly developed physique, this offensive defenseman’s stock has been rising since the U20 WJCs in December. His performance at the Combine showed strength and good aerobic fitness.
By Saturday afternoon, most of the attendees had left the Combine, happy to put the interviews and fitness tests behind them. Although most will not be contacted again by an NHL team prior to the draft, for a growing minority, the Combine is just the beginning of the testing. Several individual NHL teams have requested player participation in further fitness and even on-ice skills testing over the next few days. In fact, several of the European players went to perform such tests Sunday afternoon before getting on a plane to return to Europe.
The private testing brought up the subject of having an on-ice component to the Combine. This subject is raised every year, and once again there were lively discussions between NHL general mangers, scouts, and Central Scouting, as well as the press, about the value of including it in this event. EJ McGuire says while this is certainly a possibility in the future, “we have to consider the pluses and minuses of doing so. Some players have been away from the ice for many months, some are just off playoff runs and are banged up. Plus there are potential equipment issues, and cost and venue concerns.”
Despite possible issues, every year the subject comes up, and given the increase in teams requesting individual private testing, an on-ice component most likely will be included sometime in the near future.
The Combine has gotten bigger and bigger every year, and after just two years at this larger venue, it is close to capacity. There is some talk about moving to the Combine to the convention center, however, a move to increase capacity is at least two years away.