Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna.)
Over the last week, there have been many articles, tweets, and television spots about the NHL Combine, which officially took place in Toronto from Monday through Saturday. For this Combine, NHL Central Scouting brought in all of the NHL teams, and 100 of the top prospects for the 2011 Entry Draft (which will take place in Minnesota later in the month) for interviews, medicals, as well as fitness and mental agility/psychological testing.
Ninety-one skaters and nine netminders went through the process, which included 82 players currently playing in North America and 18 Europeans. For the Euros, this trip to Toronto was more than just interviews and testing, it was part of a wooing process that lasts for the better part of a week. Those players spent evenings at a baseball game, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and at restaurants, and were invited to enjoy their time in North America.
For the first time in recent years, there was only one Russian player not currently playing in North America who attended the Combine. There were seven Russians who were invited and tested in 2007 so this was unusual. Almost all the invited Europeans at this year’s Combine spoke English, so the usual bevy of translators were not required to accompany players through the paces of the event.
Although the media and fans generally focus on the fitness testing portion of the Combine, and that’s what most of the articles, tweets and television spots were about, the most important part of the Combine for the teams is the interviews. Prior to the interviews, each team is given a binder of scouting materials on all the attending players. The binder material is generated by all the computerized scouting reports gathered by NHL Central Scouting. The teams use this information, as well as their own scouting reports, in the interviews. This has not changed over the years, but for the 2011 draft in particular (when many players are ranked so closely from the middle of the first round through the entire second round), teams generally interviewed more players than they have in the past. It was not uncommon for players expected to be selected high in the first round to have 29 interviews, and for players who are expected to be picked in the later half of that round to have just as many. Whether that means there will be more trade movement than usual or that players are just bunched together more than in other years remains to be seen. What is the case, however, is that, with the advent of large computer databases of scouting information, more of this information is easily stored by teams for future reference and the time for these interviews are not wasted.
The teams are also spending more time trying to get the prospects to reveal more of their personalities in the interviews. It is well-known that many of the prospects rehearse expected questions with agents and family advisors, and teams have tried to devise different questions for the prospects they interview. In addition, the Combine participants are given mental agility/psychological tests while in Toronto to give the teams more information about the prospects. First administered in a quiet setting when they are not involved in performing any fitness testing, the mental agility portion of the same test is administered once again immediately after completing the fitness portion of the Combine.
Although the results of this testing is not universally seen as helpful by all NHL teams, the psychological testing does give information about the prospects’ personalities, according to Barry Tarter, the Executive Director of EXACT Sports (which runs both the psychological and fitness portions of the testing). Tarter says that, "there are no right or wrong answers to the questions on the psychological tests… but it gives the teams information about how players react." Tarter says that the hope is that the test will provide the teams with information about how a player will perform his projected role on the ice and in the locker room. Tarter was very excited about the fact that after this Combine, EXACT will have five years of data from which to draw a clearer picture of the results. The hope is that the fitness and mental agility/psychological data from the successful players over those years will allow for the statistics from each of the different levels of junior play to be adjusted to give a more accurate comparison.
Tarter also took the time to explain why the teams and the media should not be judging a prospect from the results of one particular fitness test. He stated that, "several of the tests should be combined for certain types of players; no one test is indicative of the success of any player." That said, there were several players who excelled at certain tests. Ty Rattie did very well at anaerobic fitness; David Musil at aerobic fitness. Defenseman Jamieson Oleksiak and netminder Laurent Brossoit both had excellent wingspans. Oleksiak, who, at 6’7, was the tallest player at the testing, did well in many areas, as did the smallest participant, Rocco Grimaldi, who stands only 5’6.
The Combine’s final component is the medical examination and questioning, and hand/eye coordination tests, which are done immediately prior to the fitness testing. The medical tests are not extensive and have changed little over the past few years, so many teams require additional information from the prospects that they are interested in.
Over the years, there has been some talk of expanding both the medical portion of the testing and adding an on-ice component to the testing of the prospects. But there are budgetary constraints and issues as to the fairness of testing players who have not been on the ice in game conditions for months against others who just finished playing in the Memorial Cup.
An unexpected issue with Central Scouting and the Combine has recently tragically arisen. EJ McGuire, who was the engine and the choreographer around which NHL Central Scouting operated, died of cancer two months ago. A creative innovator and a hockey visionary, McGuire was lauded at the Combine as a great guy who was devoted to hockey, to his many friends and co-workers, as well as to his family. This he certainly was, but his loss to Central Scouting is more profound than that. McGuire believed in analytics and was instrumental in taking hockey scouting into the twenty-first century. It was his vision to make this year’s Combine as high tech as other sports, which his staff was able to achieve. McGuire was always intrigued by ways to improve the prediction of hockey success and was willing to try new ideas.
After each Combine, EJ and I always sat down and talked about the event just past and the state of scouting. This year, Nathan Ogilvie-Harris, who is the Manager of Central Scouting and oversees the day-to-day running of the Combine, graciously agreed to chat with me about McGuire and the improvements that were included in this year’s Combine. What Ogilvie-Harris could not answer, however, was the question, "where does Central Scouting go from here?" It is a very important question, as scouting advances more and more beyond just sitting in the rink and taking notes on players. Video and analytics are being integrated more and more into hockey scouting, and there is increasing pressure for adding an on-ice component to the Combine testing.
A new director should be named by the fall and immediate radical changes are not expected. But Central Scouting’s long-term direction is anything but certain, as it will take a very forward-looking hockey mind to continue McGuire’s push into scouting’s future.