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Draft combine showcases top NHL prospects

Morgan Rielly is expected to go in the top five of the NHL draft. (Photo by Brad White/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Morgan Rielly is expected to go in the top five of the NHL draft. (Photo by Brad White/NHLI via Getty Images)

There was a time when the NHL draft combine was attended by just a handful of media members; now it's a big spectacle. The players invited have all heard the horror stories about tricky interview questions and puking after the bike stations, so there isn't a lot of new terrain to be unearthed. But that doesn't mean this year was uneventful.

In past years, teams have given prospects any number of wacky questions in an attempt to see how they fare under pressure, but talking to this year's crop of teens, it seems like that has been toned down. After all, if the kids coming in expect crazy queries, the effect is lost.

“I've never tried to trick kids,” said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon. “I know at 18 I wasn't on the ball when it came to people skills or the ability to converse with adults who are asking tough questions. I try to put myself in their place and our staff try to make them feel comfortable so the kids can reveal more of themselves.”

Not that teams are waving the white flag. The Boston Bruins have always been known as one of the most intimidating teams at the combine, packing their room with staffers and using big, brooding Cam Neely as the ultimate weapon. This year, however, the B's took a different tack – the team employed a young female reporter as part of their arsenal, one who was well-versed in the Twitter accounts of some of the players. That made for some great “gotcha” scenarios for the unsuspecting players.

And if the teens wanted off-the-wall questions, they got them as part of a huge psychological questionnaire distributed by the New York Islanders before the combine began, to be completed in a short time frame at the players' houses (in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, an Isles staffer would drop the test off then collect the answers hours later, driving a circuit for multiple players).

Injuries have played the biggest role in this year's draft class and affirming health was big for many. Some players were still on the mend, in fact, and didn't participate in the big physical tests. Mikhail Grigorenko, a top-five pick from the Quebec Remparts, is just over a bout of mono, while Dubuque Fighting Saints power forward Zemgus Girgensons was coming off an energy-sapping broken jaw that saw him only return to solid foods recently. For others, the interview portion meant medical questions.

“All 26 teams asked how my shoulder is,” said Peterborough defenseman Slater Koekkoek, whose season with the Petes was truncated by surgery. “The shoulder felt 100 percent. I worked hard to get it where it was.”

Speedy Kitchener center Matia Marcantuoni also had shoulder surgery this season and interviewed with 18 teams. Three scheduled independent medical evaluations. Marcantuoni skipped the bench press and push-ups stations, but listed his shoulder at 95 percent.

“I took it as a positive,” he said. “After the surgery I weighed 183 pounds, but I worked my legs and core and now I'm 195.”

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For what it's worth, Koekkoek's shoulder looked fine when he took to the bench press and in his push-ups. Sarnia center Alex Galchenyuk, who missed all but two regular season games with ACL surgery, showed no ill effects from his knee when competing in the Vertek vertical leap test, either.

The 2012 crop is also intriguing because of the number of second-chancers in the mix. Combine invitees such as Tanner Pearson, Tomas Hyka, Andrei Makarov, Kevin Roy and Jimmy Vesey have already been passed over in the draft at least once, if not twice. But their growth this season meant teams are back on their scent. Roy, who hails from the Montreal suburbs, spent last season at Deerfield prep school in New England, before making a switch to Lincoln of the United States League this year.

“Coming out of Deerfield, I thought I was a long shot to be drafted,” he said. “I wanted to prove what I could do against higher competition this year and I think I did that.”

Roy put up a USHL modern record of 54 goals and 104 points in 59 games for Lincoln, so yeah, he's probably right.

Vesey, a Harvard commit who will face Roy's Brown Bears squad next season in college, said the Colorado Avalanche had been a suitor in the seventh round last year, but the Avs went with blueliner Dillon Donnelly of Shawinigan instead. Vesey too switched leagues, going from Belmont high school to South Shore of the Eastern Jr. League, where Minnesota prospect Charlie Coyle played.

“I didn't expect to be here as an overager,” Vesey said. “But I used last year as motivation, went out and had a good year and here I am at the combine.”

And since only a fraction of the prospects available actually get to participate in the combine, there were some noticeable snubs. Erie's Adam Pelech, Chicoutimi's Charles Hudon and Baie-Comeau's Raphael Bussieres were among those left at home, but several scouts told me it's no big deal; most NHL teams will have events before the draft with their own list of invitees. Besides, the scouts grinned; they're more than happy if one of their draft dark horses isn't put on display for the other 29 teams.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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