"I've talked to dozens of hockey players who have had the same injury and they're fine now. Some even told me their knee is actually stronger than before."
-- Zach Budish
That's the question facing NHL talent evaluators when it comes to Edina High School star Zach Budish.
An enormous power forward, Budish tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee playing for Edina's football team in October. Outside of 15 games with Team Southwest of the Minnesota High School Elite League, there wasn't much there for scouts to judge.
"The question is, how good was Budish before he got hurt?" said NHL Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire.
Good enough to be No. 22 in Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2009 Entry Draft, and second among scholastic players.
But when Budish arrived in Toronto for the 2009 Scouting Combine, he maybe had more to prove than most.
"I think with Zach's injury, everyone's looking to see if he's fully recovered," one Eastern Conference GM told NHL.com. "He did play last year. He did some good work at the start of the year in the Minnesota Elite League (14 goals, 27 points). He's a bit of an enigma for everybody because he didn't play a full season."
Budish, though, has no doubts.
"I have no doubt I'll recover by the spring," Budish told NHL.com. "I've talked to dozens of hockey players who have had the same injury and they're fine now. Some even told me their knee is actually stronger than before."
Budish said his first day back on the ice was March 1, and he was cleared for drills in April. He admits he was sore at first, but now is feeling fine. He was cleared to participate in all the fitness tests at the combine, including all the lower-body strength and conditioning tests.
"Since May 1 I haven't felt sore after (drills) and haven't had to ice," Budish told NHL.com. "I feel very comfortable out there. I'm easing back into contact right now and ready to go."
Budish spent his lost season staying as close as he could to his hockey teammates.
"I stayed active with Edina this year," he said. "I was at every practice, every game, every meeting, film sessions, everything. I feel like I stayed involved and that helped me get through the process.
"You love hockey growing up and everyone here has a passion for hockey, but sitting back for six months and not playing makes you want to get back on the ice that much more. You realize how much you really love the game and love to play and how much you miss it."
He's undecided on where he'll continue next season, but the likely bet is the University of Minnesota, where he has a scholarship waiting for him. Budish said if he, the school and the NHL team that drafts him feel he isn't yet ready for NCAA play, Green Bay of the United States Hockey League is an option.
Wherever Budish ends up, that team will get a 6-foot-2 1/2, 229-pound right wing who reminds one scout of a 500-goal NHL All-Star.
"I've liked Zach for a few years now and I'm not about to quit on him because of his injury," NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "He's still very young and a bull out there, a Keith Tkachuk-type. I know he sometimes gets criticized for his skating, but skating is something he'll improve. Let's face it -- there aren't many high school players out there with Pavel Bure-type speed. It's a process."
Budish agrees that he must improve his skating, but the belief is that focusing solely on hockey going forward -- Budish starred in football and baseball at Edina -- will improve that part of his game.
"The only criticism I've heard of this guy has been his skating, because he was on and off the football field and then went to hockey," said Barzee. "I liken it to Mark Osiecki, who played for Calgary who now coaches at Wisconsin, who was a hell of a football player and hockey player. He never got his hockey legs until February. He went through the draft and the next year went to Wisconsin and his skating, just because he was just using his skating muscles and training for hockey, went through the roof."
Budish also spent his down time getting ready for the combine and the next hockey season. He said he isn't quite 100 percent yet, but he's certain he'll be there by the time the 2009-10 season starts.
"I'm pretty close, pretty comfortable (on the ice)," he said. "You always have that one time where you fall and you're nervous for a second, but I've gone right back and realized I'm recovered enough form my injury where I'm good enough to go. Me skating and teams seeing me skating and doing well enough on the tests will definitely help my draft stock."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Mike G. Morreale at email@example.com.