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Combine Underway

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
From May 30 through June 4, over 100 of the top draft-eligible prospects from North America and Europe will be put through the wringer at the NHL Combine in Toronto.

There, the young players will be subjected to numerous physical and mental tests that can ultimately have an effect on where they are selected in the 2011 NHL Draft, which is set for June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

There are three main components to the NHL Combine. Teams have four days to interview as many prospects as they’d like in order to get a better feel for who they are not only as hockey players, but as individuals. The young athletes are also given medical examinations by independent physicians before undergoing an off-ice physical test that includes events as simple as push-ups and sit-ups, or as challenging and complex as a Wingate anaerobic test and a VO2 max test.

Even with the advances in modern technology that allow teams to scrutinize every detail of a player’s physical makeup, it can be important not to form an opinion based solely on a prospect’s strength or stamina. Scouts from each NHL team have been traveling across the globe since last August to evaluate the players on the ice and now the combine will present an opportunity to tweak their opinions slightly, as opposed to forming completely new judgments on them.

“To me, the combine has a somewhat dangerous component to it,” said Rick Pracey, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Avalanche. “Although it’s a valuable tool for us, we always have to remind ourselves that it’s not on the ice. There isn’t a puck and there aren’t players around them.”

There are a few reasons why the players aren’t placed on the ice at the combine. For one, it can be unfair to compare a high school player whose season ended in February to a prospect from the Canadian Hockey League who might have recently concluded a long playoff run (and as a result might be in top physical shape or, on the other end of the spectrum, could still be dealing with nagging injuries that develop during the course of a long season).

In addition, at this point in the draft process, each NHL club has viewed the players they are pinpointing multiple times in on-ice situations. By the time the combine rolls around, the scouting staffs of those teams should be very familiar with what those players can do on the ice.

So instead of having the prospects lace up the skates, this event provides teams with another puzzle piece to consider when making their final decisions leading up to the draft.

“You’re looking at everything as a big picture. The combine plays a percentage or plays a role, but a lot of it comes from where you are,” added Pracey. “For example, a high school player might not be as physically ready as a kid who was in Ann Arbor (playing within the National Team Development Program)  or a kid that played in the Canadian Hockey League. The different types of players have different physical attributes. It’s something where you can’t get swayed, but certainly you want to make sure that kids are putting in their time and they’re serious about how they prepare and how they work away from the rink.”

Although potential NHL prospects don’t typically have “make-or-break” performances at the combine – something that has been known to happen in other professional spots – the event is still an extremely valuable portion of the evaluation process as a whole.

The ability to view the prospects in a different setting and to sit down with them for one-on-one interviews is crucial for teams who are aiming to select a player they hope will be part of their organization for years to come.

“Certainly there are things you can take out of it,” noted Pracey. “You like to know that kids are taking care of themselves. You like to know that they put in their work away from the rink. When they’re at such a young age of physical development, it’s very important not to be skewed by factors like NHL readiness or physical readiness. It’s always good to have the size component and it’s good to where see the long-term and short-term development needs are.

“At the end of the day it’s always great to go through the interview process, to meet the kids and talk to them, because we want to make sure we find out as much about these players as we can.”

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