Last week, the National Hockey League engaged in its annual ritual of interviewing, testing, and examining the top players eligible for the 2012 Entry Draft. The 105 prospects that attended the Combine were poked, prodded and questioned, as well as given psychological tests. The difference this year is that there were many more second-year eligible prospects in attendance, and maybe more importantly, many draft eligible prospects had endured injury shortened seasons, which resulted in different concerns on the part of the NHL teams.
The Combine itself was a little different this year, as there was a new venue, a new Central Scouting director, and one less physical test as the sit-ups portion of the testing was eliminated. Also, for the first time in many years, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke was not in attendance.
The draft is somewhat different this year too, as the level of talent is flatter across the first and second rounds, with few obvious future NHL stars in the ranks of draftees and many more than usual injured players. In many ways, that makes 2012 a more wide open draft and this Combine a more interesting event.
Teams were also talking trade more than they have during past Combines. Clubs are evaluating their needs and deciding whether or not to parlay their selections into instant improvement of their current NHL team. Other teams meanwhile are deciding to move up or down based upon the availability of a similarly talented player at a higher or lower draft position. Expect the unusual amount of discussion going on between teams over the last week to continue until the draft in Pittsburgh, and as a result, more than the usual amount of trades before and during the draft.
What did not take place at the Combine this year was much talk about which players will be NHL-ready to start the 2012-13 season. Although some of this may have to do with the physical abilities of the players, at least in part it was the feeling of among many in attendance that the start of 2012-13 season may be delayed. Although many of the prospects who were attending the Combine will not be directly affected by this, September rookie tournaments could be cancelled and main training camps would not be held should the season not start in early October.
This worrisome possibility however did not overshadow what was a very up beat Combine. Most of the interview portion of the event was over by Friday morning, when the physical testing began. As in previous years, the interviews were scheduled at 20-minute intervals with teams asking a variety of questions–some pertaining to hockey and others about prospects' families, personalities, and their character.
The physical (and reaction) testing was performed on Friday and Saturday. Most of the high profile names tested on Friday, when the majority of television crews and most media were in attendance. Still, every team has personnel that stay through Saturday, even though things are much lower key. The NHL also tested very interesting potential first-round prospects toward the end of the day on Saturday, so some of the empty-room syndrome that had affected late testers in previous years was avoided this year.
Each of the 30 teams is given the results of the physical testing by the end of the Combine. The media and the public are provided with the top 10 performers in each of 29 categories. Each of NHL Central Scouting's top six skaters (Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk, Morgan Rielly, and Filip Forsberg) stood out in at least one category, including Grigorenko, who did not do the physical testing due to illness, but was measured for height, weight, wingspan (in which he ranked seventh overall), reach, and body fat.
Of the six top ranked Central Scouting players, Rielly stood out the most. He was excellent in seven of the 29 categories, including the strength of his right grip (where he ranked first overall) and left grip strength (he ranked third). This hand strength carried over into the bench press, where Rielly placed fourth in number of reps and fourth in pounds per body weight. Rielly's legs also were strong, as he did very well in two measurements of peak leg power.
Among other standouts in the physical tests were Thomas Wilson (a potential first round selection) and Chris Calnan. Wilson, a big, tough winger, who plays for the OHL Plymouth Whalers, ranked high in the anaerobic and aerobic exercises, leg strength, hand strength, the bench press, and in push ups. Calnan, a Boston area, high school, forward, was the best performer in the entire testing–ranking a top 10 in 15 categories, including five first place or tied for first place tests, and two second place finishes. The categories in which Calnan excelled ranged from anaerobic exercises to vertical leaps to hand strength. Expected to be a second or third round selection, Calnan is a player who came into the Combine very quietly and created a lot of buzz while he was there.
Also elevating himself during the Combine was University of Wisconsin freshman Jake McCabe, who performed very well during the physical tests. A late 1993 born defenseman, McCabe ranked first overall in three categories and excelled in areas that required both arm and leg strength. Expected to be a second round selection, McCabe is a two-way blueliner with excellent hockey sense.
Among those prospects expected to be selected in the first round of the draft and having a good Combine were Mathew Dumba, who performed well on the exercise bikes, the vertical jump, and the push ups, and Jacub Trouba, who showed excellent strength and the ability to jump from a mat. Offensive defenseman Cody Ceci also helped his cause, as he measured one of the top wingspans in this year's draft and showed strong leg and arm strength. Fellow blueliner, Brady Skjei excelled at the verticals and jumping from the mat. However, the potential first rounder who was helped the most by his performance on the physical testing is OHL forward, Brendan Gaunce. Gaunce excelled in 12 of the 29 rankings, showing strength in almost all the areas that were tested–including the Wingate, the verticals, the hand strength, and upper body strength. Gaunce was expected to be selected in the middle of the first round in the entry draft, but his performance at the Combine might have elevated him to a top 10 pick in Pittsburgh.
The goaltenders also did well at the Combine's testing, with OHL Belleville's Malcolm Subban performing the best. Placing within the 10 best performers in 10 categories, Subban's testing and excellent personality may have been sufficient enough to vault the netminder into a first round selection.
After the Combine, Hockey's Future spoke with the new Central Scouting Director, Dan Marr, who was very happy with how the event had gone. Marr humbly gave much of the credit to his staff and to his predecessor EJ McGuire, who "set up a standard of excellence" that Marr was happy to follow. When asked about future planning, Marr did say that "there is talk of adding a VO2 skating treadmill in the future." But, as for an on-ice component, Marr remarked that, "some teams don't think that they are going to learn any more than they have seen in a game…it's just a matter of how much time and resources you want to spend."
Several teams do invite prospects to participate in on-ice drills after the Combine. But given the cost and logistics of adding an on-ice component of the event, don't expect a huge expansion of the Combine any time soon.