Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is expected to be a top-five pick at the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo by THN Art Director Jamie Hodgson)
It’s an event that has grown largely in scope over the years, but how important is the draft combine to the most important decision-makers, the NHL teams themselves? While the pomp and circumstance would lead you to believe the fitness portion has a lot of bearing on matters, the reality is a little more subtle.
According to one NHL exec I talked to, the most important things he learns at the combine's physical testing are effort and frame. As long as a young player appears to be giving it his all, the numbers aren't a deal-breaker. Certain aspects of the test play into this as well. On Day 1 of the fitness testing, the big guns were brought out early with top-5 players Adam Larsson, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sean Couturier all coming through in the first couple sessions. Much was made of the fact none of them completed very many reps on the 150-pound bench press (two-to-six was the unscientific range among them). But the bench press must be done in a very specific manner, so improper technique - not a lack of strength - can disqualify them from posting bigger numbers.
When it comes to frame, that’s something the players cannot hide and while Nugent-Hopkins still looks skinny, he was no worse than Alexander Burmistrov, who jumped straight from junior to the Atlanta Thrashers this season despite a pencil-thin physique. Of course, when you’re uber-talented, it helps. Others are more open to scrutiny. As per usual, it was the kids trained in America that impressed the most in the frame department. Team USA power forward Tyler Biggs looked like he could step onto an NFL linebacker corps today, while Northeastern University’s Jamie Oleksiak was a monster on the intimidating V02 Max bike test. Even John Gibson, who tends net for Team USA, looked NHL-ready and displayed great athleticism to go along with his coveted size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds).
In the interview portion, which took place earlier in the week, one NHL scout told me that it can have a crucial effect on matters. He said for 95 percent of kids, a so-so interview won’t make much difference. But a horrible interview or a horrible fitness test can knock a prospect right off a team’s draft board. That franchise may only eliminate one or two names like that, but it could save them from making a huge mistake on draft day. Considering teams only make around seven picks overall, one or two early gaffes can be huge.
Another interesting takeaway from Day 1 was how many interviews some of the top players had, even though many of the teams had no shot at drafting them (barring a big trade). Larsson interviewed with 21 teams, while Swedish countryman Mika Zibanejad saw 29. The only team that didn’t come calling was Detroit, but only because the exciting youngster had already talked to one of their European scouts back home.
But the big question approaching draft day is what the order will be when everything shakes out. One insider told me Edmonton is having a very tough time choosing between Larsson and Nugent-Hopkins, who are very different players. Personally, I think the Swedish defenseman is a better fit, given the Oilers' organizational needs, but the insider pointed out the Edmonton media has been very hot on Nugent-Hopkins, who plays in Alberta already with Red Deer. That outside pressure is having an impact.
It also creates a domino effect because Colorado, with pick No. 2, likely would take Larsson if available, but maybe not Nugent-Hopkins since the Avs have so many great young centers already (Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly). Kitchener right winger Gabriel Landeskog then enters the picture, setting up a showdown between Nugent-Hopkins and Saint John star Jonathan Huberdeau for Florida's attention with the third pick.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.