NHL draft combine: Players learn how to sell themselves to teams

Ryan Kennedy
Blake-Clarke

There’s no getting around it: Blake Clarke had a rough season. After tallying 19 goals and 51 points as a rookie with Brampton in the Ontario League, Clarke found the back of the net just twice this year, getting traded from the Battalion (now in North Bay) to Saginaw. In 54 games, he had 12 points.

But thanks to a new wrinkle in the process, the American left winger was invited to the combine. In past sessions, the players chosen were based off of Central Scouting’s rankings. This time, NHL teams picked candidates too. So Clarke, ranked 134th amongst North American skaters by Central Scouting, made the final list (including Europeans and goalies) of 119 prospects. Now it’s his job to justify the decision.

“Obviously it was a very off-year for me and it’s not something I enjoyed going through,” Clarke said. “But I want to portray that I haven’t given up. I’m still going to go as hard as I can and this hasn’t altered my path in my mind. I still know where I want to be and I still truly believe I’m going to end up there.”

Not only did Clarke move teams during the year, but a shoulder injury wreaked havoc on him – first physically, then mentally.

“The stuff that made me successful was getting to the net, being tenacious, getting to the right spot and winning battles,” he said. “This year I got away from that identity. You have a shoulder injury and you lose confidence going into the corners. You lose battles and it kept going on and on.”

Power forward Beau Starrett had no problem with scoring this season; he was basically a point-per-gamer for the South Shore Kings. But as the only invite from the United States Premier League, he still had to justify his worth. The USPHL is a newer league that intended on raising the competition of junior hockey in the eastern U.S., though not all scouts believe the mission has been accomplished.

“There were teams that were hard to play against, like the Jr. Bruins and Jersey Hitmen,” Starrett said. “But definitely there were bottom-of-the-bottom teams that were easier. Next year I’ll probably be in Dubuque, so elevating my game there will definitely help.”

Dubuque plays in the United States League, America’s premier junior circuit. Starrett will go to the Fighting Saints before heading off to Cornell, a storied NCAA school. At nearly 6-foot-5 already, Starrett knows he has an enviable frame to build on and playing physical is part of his gig. Teams may have to take a leap of faith with him, assuming he can produce and contribute in the tougher USHL, but that’s no concern of the Massachusetts native.

Friends with 2013 Edmonton Oilers pick Anthony Florentino, Starrett knew a bit about the combine, but the actual experience has been something else.

“The whole process is just amazing,” he said. “Getting invited is something special and all it takes is one team. Hopefully they like what they see.”