“It’s like a big game and you see if they’re mentally prepared for it. The atmosphere is different for a kid, having a lot of people standing and staring at them as they work out, but again, you see how a kid reacts in a unique situation.” – Western Conference scout.
It’s the draft combine. The fresh, new smell of summer is in the air and a budding, boyish group of prospects is put through grueling tests of physical and mental limitations before NHL clubs make the hard choices and set a course for the kids’ long-term futures.
But how important is the draft combine to a scout? Draft day is less than a month away, but the talent evaluators have been watching and grading prospects for months and maybe even years to ensure their final decisions are well-informed. Ultimately, it’s based on what these kids have done on the ice, not in the weight room.
“If you look at the player doing the exercise and relate back to the type of player he is on the ice, you can confirm a few things,” said one Western Conference scout. “Some guy who is a real strong, determined player with average skill and he goes like crazy on the bike and is incredible on it that shows you, ‘ya, that’s his trait, he’s determined, he may not be as skilled, but he comes to play.’ ”
Some of the exercises don’t really factor into how a scout looks at a player, but will certainly help other parts of the NHL team’s evaluation staff in their contribution to the final evaluation.
“We have our strength coach here as well who documents all the kids who go through and then writes a book on it and gives us a synopsis on every kid, so we review that because that’s his expertise,” explained another scout.
For a scout, it’s interesting to note how some of these prospects react to the rigors of the more physically demanding challenges. One of the favorites from this side of the rope is the Wingate, a stationary bike exercise where a prospect has to pedal as hard as he can for a prolonged period of time, while two or three aides yell in his face to encourage him to keep going.
The more committed players will give it their all, but every now and again a player will give up on the test and there are a number of reasons for why he may do that. Perhaps the player is ill, perhaps he’s just not quite as physically mature yet, perhaps he has never faced a challenge as difficult as this one or, perhaps, he just wasn’t prepared for what hit him.
“I remember Pierre-Marc Bouchard was on the Wingate and when he finished he was white, he looked very ill,” recalled one scout. “One of our guys said it looked like he had a vampire sucking on his neck; he was about to pass out. He told us he didn’t eat before the test and that was his biggest mistake; that made sense.”
As one scout explained, the combine is a time to finalize reports, cement ideas about a kid and have one last look for any red flags that may have been missed over the course of the season.
For teams with tough decisions between the high-end prospects at the very top of the draft – like the ones the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning will have to make this year – the combine is a time to shore up just how much a player wants to play at the next level or on a specific team.
Last season, Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian were in a heated battle to go No. 2 at the draft behind Steven Stamkos. Doughty, who was a Kings fan growing up and who always had posters of Wayne Gretzky on his wall, may have been a little heavy – and, arguably, sluggish – prior to the combine.
The Los Angeles Kings, who were in possession of the second overall selection, were still torn between the two prospects prior to combine day. So, in preparation for these exercises, the Kings challenged Doughty on a number of fronts to see how he would respond. When the team suggested he needed to be in better physical shape for a top-flight prospect and should prepare himself as such, Doughty took up the call and went above and beyond, dropping approximately 20 pounds before the testing.
Sometimes answering those challenges will do more for a player’s stock than anything he does at the combine.
“We challenged him about his physical conditioning and how important the combine was for him and he answered the bell,” explained a Kings scout. “It made the decision a hell of a lot easier for us, because you’re talking about two phenomenal hockey players and two completely different hockey players and Drew answered the bell on every challenge laid out for him in the process with flying colors. If he wanted any chance of being a King he had to be in better shape. To his credit he did an amazing job.”
And the rest is a bit of history that will continue to play out for the next 20 years.
A Scout's Life is a look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. We'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation. A Scout's Life will appear bi-monthly through the playoffs until the NHL draft.