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Combine Serves as Final Benchmark Before Draft

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins — More than 100 prospects recently gathered for a week of testing and interviews in Buffalo as part of the NHL Scouting Combine, taking place three weeks prior the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

When their names are called on June 24 and 25 at the First Niagara Center, they will be presented with the first step to reaching the National Hockey League.

The NHL Combine serves as the final benchmark prior to that weekend.

General managers of the 30 NHL clubs, and their scouting staffs, were all on hand to interview the prospects in a high-pressure interview setting. The players also participated in medicals and fitness testing.

Saturday served as the final day of the Combine, with the next wave of NHL talent completing a round of tests that will serve as their baselines moving forward. Multiple rounds of testing kicked off at 7:30 a.m., and lasted all day.

On the arena floor of Buffalo’s HarborCenter, a number of stations were set up: the Wingate, Y-Balance, Pullups, Pro Agility, Bench Press, Force Plate, Long Jump and Height/Wing Span Measurement.

The Wingate garnered the most attention — a player pedals on a bike at maximum capacity for 30 seconds, while a strength coach yells in his face to find another gear so loud that it reverberates throughout the rink.

The prospects, wearing sleeveless, numbered jerseys, pushed themselves to their limits, with NHL staff and media looking on.

Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney took in the action on Saturday, along with Bruins new Director of Sports Performance Paul Whissel and Strength and Conditioning Coach John Whitesides.

“It’s an important week. You’re seeing some wide range of kids in different circumstances and take them out of their comfort zone a little bit,” said Sweeney. “But they’re well prepared and the final caveat is the testing [on Saturday] just to see how hard kids are willing to work, where their development is, and they can grow from here.”

When it comes to the fitness testing, the NHL tries to take focus away from it being a competition among prospects. Rather, it is a benchmark for the prospects moving forward in their development.

“Well, you’re going to clearly see a wide spectrum of where kids are in their development trajectory,” said Sweeney. “You’ll have college kids, guys who have sort of moved along at a quicker pace. You’ll have junior kids or anybody that has a lot of room for upside, so you’re just trying to realize how much work they’re willing to put in and how much further they can continue to grow as players and as young men, and try and forecast.”

“There’s no crystal ball, but we bring in our strength guys to help us evaluate where these kids are,” Sweeney continued.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with our strength coaches,” said Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr. “To develop a battery of fitness tests where they can get the information they need to go back to management and say ‘yes, we can pack 20 pounds on this player,’ ‘yes, we can make this player faster.’”

“Different things that you’re looking for — they can say ‘you know, I don’t think this is as big as he’s going to get’ — but if you’re Dougie Gilmore at 175 pounds or Patrick Kane, that’s all you need. It’s what goes on on the ice.”

“And we tell the players — the fitness tests here are just to give the strength coaches a picture of where you are in your athletic development at this point in time in your career, because they’re going to get them right after the draft at their development camp where they can set up a fitness program for them to get stronger.”

With several prospects completing tests at the same time, the NHL club personnel usually focus on a narrowed down list.

“We’re watching them move — it’s good to see them in person. A lot of the numbers on paper don’t necessarily translate to their physical stature, and how they move,” said Whissel. “So, [it’s beneficial] to have those pieces, to be able to relay back [to management].”

“We can use these to kind of measure progress. A lot of the tests are things that we will reproduce, or certain variables are things we’ll reproduce, so it’s a good starting point for them, and something we can look to, to track progress.”

In conjunction with the interview process, and the constant on-ice viewings and in-person conversations throughout the course of the hockey season, the fitness tests help round out a team’s perception of a player.

“I think it’s such an all-encompassing experience,” said Whissel. “The kids are looked at — their body language, their interview skills, how they carry themselves as professionals, in addition to just the fitness piece. I think it’s a good way to get a feel for what the player might be like both on and off the ice. I think it’s very impressive.”

At the 2016 NHL Draft, the Bruins are set to pick 14th overall and either 29th or 30th in the first round, depending on how San Jose finishes the Stanley Cup Final. They also have a pick in the second round (49th), two fifth round selections, and a pick in each of the sixth and seventh rounds.

“This year’s first round is really strong, right through the end, and that’s what it’s so hard to project what the order might be,” said Marr. “It’s going to be very interesting to see who’s got 31, 32, 33rd pick here, because there’s going to be a lot of players left over from the first day that teams thought would be long gone, and that might generate some trade action, which is always fun.”

The makeup of this draft class also makes the week at the NHL Scouting Combine all the more important, before teams create their final draft lists.

The prospects understand that as well.

“It’s the only time throughout the whole year where you get to sit down with the NHL GMs and get to know what they think about you,” said 18-year-old forward, Matthew Tkachuk, who recently won the Memorial Cup with the London Knights.

The son of former NHL player and Mass. native Keith Tkachuk, Matthew also happens to be related to current Bruins prospect Ryan Fitzgerald, as well as current Bruin Jimmy Hayes. He is ranked as the second North American skater heading into the draft.

“You get to ask [the GMs] questions, and it’s just really good conversations. The interview process, it’s tough with some teams and they really pepper you with some questions, but they just want just want to see if you crack, or if you stand up for yourself.”

With the week wrapped up, the players will now wait, while the general managers and their scouting staffs will grind out their evaluations.

“It’s just a matter of where they’re going to buy in to do the work that’s necessary,” said Sweeney. “I know the work that’s necessary to play in the National Hockey League. These guys think they might know, but there are other levels that they need to get to, and you can try and see and scratch below the surface to see who’s willing to do that.”

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