2008 NHL Combine review

By Leslie Treff

With the last of the European prospects returning back across the pond this evening, the 2008 NHL Combine has drawn to a close. Although the Combine officially ended yesterday afternoon, and the NHL banners that hung in the lobby of Toronto’s Westin Bristol Place Hotel, the cameras, the players’ agents, the sponsors ‘advertisements, the team personnel, and those that were interviewing for team jobs are gone today, about a dozen prospects remained to experience more of Toronto and what playing in North America might be like. 

As each year passes, the Combine grows, both in glitz and as a place for many in hockey to network with their peers. What began as a place to test and interview prospects has become much more. The NHL has realized this as an opportunity to show the sport to the world in a different light, and this year held the Combine in a much more upscale hotel, with many more NHL.com and NHL-TV personnel on hand.

The Combine officially began on Monday (although the European prospects started to arrive last Saturday), and over the first three days of the week, the NHL teams’ scouting personnel arrived and set up shop in different rooms throughout the hotel.

The college-bound players started to arrive on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, and then had a whirlwind 48 hours at the Combine. To maintain their NCAA eligibility, a player is only allowed only two days in which to interview with the teams, be medically examined and to complete the fitness and psychological tests. This led to a few players having up to 20 interviews in one day on Thursday and more on Friday, the day that the college-bound players were tested. All of these players completed their fitness testing on Friday and the last were gone by Saturday morning.

Interviews began on Tuesday and ran through Friday (although most were held from Tuesday through Thursday), with scouting personnel ranging in number from 3 to 12 to one prospect. Expected questions, such as “what are your strengths?” and “what are your weaknesses?” were asked in the 20-minute sessions. Some teams asked questions that the prospects were unsure how to answer. Queries such as “if you died and could come back as any animal or plant, what would you come back as and why?” were asked, and more perplexing was one team that showed a prospect three different colored circles and then asked the young player to instantly make up a story about them. Many of the teams used their time at the Combine as a preliminary interview with a prospect and have asked him to meet with them again over the next week or two. Some of these later meetings will have a skating component to it, which the Combine does not include.

There was some discussion over the last year about adding a skating component to the Combine, but according to NHL Central Scouting Director EJ McGuire, “we did not add it because the teams decided not to. Some of the players would not have been skating for months, some just skated last week in the Memorial Cup, and some would not have their own equipment with them and would be skating in new skates. There would have needed to be too many adjustments to any measures that would have been made for it to have been worthwhile.”

Testing started Friday morning, and, like last year, the prospects were put through 13 physical tests administered by EXACT Sports. In total, 102 players were put through the fitness tests. New this year was a big projection of a player’s heart rate, which was constantly monitored, throughout the fitness tests. Also new this year was that only NHL.com and NHL-TV were given access to view and/or record the testing at close range. All other media were kept in a roped-off area, where it was both difficult to view the tests and to converse with the team scouts.

One hot topic of discussion throughout the Combine was the IIHF Transfer Agreement and its affect on the European players. All of the teams that interviewed the Russian players asked extensive questions about the individual player’s intentions. However, because there are many unanswered questions about the status of the players’ contracts, as well as if the Russians will be able to come to North America to play hockey after those contracts expire, many teams may be skittish about drafting European, particularly Russian, players this year. All that could change if the questions are settled before the Entry Draft, but if not we could see another year of European players drafted lower than their talent level suggests.
Several players, in particular Joe Colborne and Colin Wilson, had a buzz around them coming into the Combine. Neither did anything to quell the NHL teams’ enthusiasm. Although there are many excellent defensemen available this year, both of those forwards should be selected in the first half of the first round of this month’s NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa.