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Beyond combine, some NHL teams go the extra mile to learn about prospects

TORONTO - The rigorous trip through a battery of tests at the NHL's scouting combine is only the beginning for some of the top prospects in the upcoming draft.

After spending three hours getting poked and prodded under the watchful eye of central scouting, a number of them will embark on a mini-tour of NHL cities for meetings and workouts with individual teams. It's a somewhat controversial practice and the Ottawa Senators are at the forefront after taking the unprecedented step of inviting media to attend workouts they will conduct with six prospects Monday and Tuesday.

The players themselves seem to view the visits as something that gets them one step closer to realizing their dream.

"It's an honour and it's fun to have that kind of attention," Swedish centre Mika Zibanejad said Friday at the scouting combine. "If they want to bring you to Ottawa, they're interested. There wasn't too much to think about (when I was asked)."

Zibanejad's stock appears to be on the rise with three weeks remaining before the June 24 draft in Minnesota. He'll also visit Buffalo, Boston and Long Island over the next week and could be taken in the top 10.

The Senators hold the sixth pick overall and plan individual workouts with Zibanejad, Drummondville's Sean Couturier, Saint John's Jonathan Huberdeau, Kitchener's Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara Ice Dogs.

Top prospects get pulled in a lot of different directions ahead of the draft. In fact, some agents are quietly questioning whether their clients should be flying around to meet with individual teams after they've already spent the past week in Toronto doing interviews and being subjected to medical and fitness testing.

The hectic schedule can be particularly tough on a player like Huberdeau, whose season ended a week ago with him lifting the Memorial Cup. He went back to Saint John, N.B., for celebrations with the team before returning to Toronto for the scouting combine. He will then travel to Boston on Monday to make an appearance on the Stanley Cup final telecast before going to Ottawa the following day.

The third-ranked North American prospect flashed a big smile when asked about his whirlwind week.

"I'm having fun," said Huberdeau.

There is nothing fun about the fitness testing the prospects endured at the combine Friday. Huberdeau was pleased he emerged from the wingate bike test without puking up his breakfast—others weren't so lucky—and the majority of prospects expressed relief after finishing.

"I've been in the gym for the past few weeks and I've specifically been doing some of the exercises," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top-ranked North American prospect. "It was definitely tough."

The NHL has made a concerted effort to make the combine into a big event and media attendance was higher than ever this year. However, there's still some debate among general managers about how useful the test results are when it comes to deciding on a draft pick.

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon holds the third selection and called the fitness results "a small piece of the puzzle."

"It's not an easy thing," said Tallon, a former NHL player. "I don't envy these young kids. I never had to go through this—I got a phone call that said 'You've been drafted.' That's it."

The prospects are all teenagers, which means they're at different stages of physical maturity.

"I think you have to be careful of putting too much emphasis on the physical development—or lack thereof—of the player," said Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney. "I think (these results) just go in the database along with video and watching players live and psychological tests that people do and interviews. That's what I've learned.

"I used to be glued to the bench press when I first got here, I wanted to see how strong they were, but now I'm at the point that's the least important thing."

The next evolution of the scouting combine could include an on-ice component, which would play well on television and provide teams with more information. It might also eliminate the need for individual visits following the combine.

While there would be logistical issues to work out—by June, some players haven't skated in months—it remains an intriguing idea to many in the industry.

"I think it's worth looking at," said Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson. "I don't think we're close to it yet. Some of these players haven't played for two months so is that fair? Some have just finished last week.

"I think it's something to look at, we've talked about it before."

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