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Combine Offers a 'Snapshot' of Each Prospect's Capabilities

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

BUFFALO — When John Whitesides showed up for the fitness testing portion for the 2015 NHL Combine, he didn’t come in knowing everything there was to know about every prospect, top to bottom.

In fact, he takes the opposite approach.

He wants to come in with an open mind. He doesn’t want to his opinion to be skewed. He wants to judge the 120 or so NHL prospects in front of him based on nothing but the series of fitness tests they undergo on that particular day.

“It’s funny — I try to not know what the players do, or who they are, or how they’ve played,” said the Bruins strength and conditioning coach on Saturday at the HarborCenter in Buffalo, where this year’s NHL Combine concluded. “I don’t pass judgment on that. I just look at purely the athlete and judge their movement and their bodies and their abilities based on that stuff.

“I try not to get the hockey involved with it because it will skew you too much.”

It might seem counterintuitive, given the fact that these teenage prospects are being analyzed based on their likelihood to someday become NHL superstars. But it’s not. There is no on-ice portion of the Combine. There are interviews, and there are a variety of tests — a pull-up test, a stationary bike test, a flexibility test, an agility test, among others — but the idea is that the prospects are evaluated based on what they bring to the table during the course of this week.

And that is precisely how they are being evaluated, at least by Whitesides.

“[The Combine] is a snapshot,” he said. “I mean, these kids are all going to improve. These kids are all 18; these kids are all going to develop and grow and mature, and some of them have a bigger range to be able to do it. Some of them are physically gifted and physically built now, and they’re not going to get physically any bigger or anything like that; they’ll improve in their hockey sense.

“Some kids are a rough canvas; you can do anything with them. Maybe they’re carrying a little bit of fat. Maybe they haven’t done a lot of working out. So those kids — you’ll improve them immensely off the ice. You just hope that that improves their on-ice ability.”

Whitesides tries to stay out of the draft process as much as he can. He conducts his evaluations, he makes them available to the Bruins management and staff and lets them make the eventual decisions regarding who is draft-worthy and who might be more of a work in progress.

But conducting those evaluations is difficult. As Whitesides said, the Combine presents only a snapshot of what these 120 prospects are capable of. Their entire futures cannot be decided based on their tests results from one day in early June. What if a kid had a bad day that day? What if he was sick? What if he didn’t fully understand what was being asked of him during a given exercise?

Whitesides keeps all of this in mind during the 10 hours of fitness testing, which he spends seated at a long table that spans the length of a hockey rink, surrounded by fellow NHL coaches and team personnel, all of whom, like him, are trying to evaluate.

“They can be different some days, different other days, but it’s the overall fitness and the stuff that they’re bringing to the table — the work that they’ve done to get to this point,” he said.

Though Whitesides does not sit in on the interview portion of the Combine, those interviews are just as important as the fitness tests. Each team conducts one-on-one sit-downs with the players they are interested in, which allows them to gain some insight into who these kids are, beyond the numbers and the statistics.

And the worldwide scouting that goes on all year long is just as important as anything. While Saturday’s tests offer a snapshot of what a given player is capable of, those scouting reports can offer a fuller picture.

“This,” Whitesides said, “is just a small piece of the puzzle that [teams] can use to make some of their decisions.”

Every year is different, and every player is different, just as is the case in any given year with any given NHL team. You cannot judge anyone based on past success, and you cannot judge a player based on his teammates, or based on his performance in one game, or even in one year.

There is plenty of information that goes into determining which player — among a vast, talented pool — is the best fit for a team. On Saturday, Whitesides simply did his part to solve his personal piece of the puzzle.

“[The players] are all different, right?” he said. “They’re all different people, they’re all different players. Some kids [will] make huge changes once they come out of here, and other kids come in and they’re so well-developed that they don’t make huge physical changes through the course of their career. So it really is individualistic, and we’ve seen things all over the board.”

And even if a player does not perform at his very best on Saturday, all is not lost. Far from it.

As Whitesides said, the fitness testing offers just a snapshot, after all.

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