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NHL Combine: Picking out the potential

The Canadiens hope to use the Combine to help identify which prospects carry the most upside as they complete their preparations for the Draft

by Dan Braverman @CanadiensMTL /

BUFFALO - A key part of NHL teams' preparations for the 2019 Draft wrapped up this weekend.

Of course, that would be the NHL Scouting Combine which once again took place at Buffalo's Harborcenter throughout the week. The Combine is an assessment process consisting of interviews, psychological evaluation, and a variety of physical tests designed to give the League's clubs a complete picture of the top 100-plus prospects eligible for the Draft in Vancouver.

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But while the Combine may provide a wealth of concrete data about the best young players in the game, Canadiens assistant general manager Trevor Timmins notes that the results are used to complement the mountains of information gathered by the club's scouting staff all season long.

"The data is interpreted by our Sports Science Department, and we look at their feedback to see if it supports what we've identified on the ice and what we have evaluated in each of these prospects," shared Timmins.

Canadiens brass will pore over the results to identify green or red flags that will give them insight into the strengths and/or weaknesses in a player's game.

"An example of a red flag may be a player that does very poorly on the long jump. We find that the long jump is correlated with players' skating ability: their ability to have quick feet and to produce speed," explained Timmins, who added that, inversely, a player with strong results in the long jump is likely to be a speedy skater.

Another red flag would be the discovery of a previously undetected medical issue, something that Timmins said did in fact occur at the Canadiens' own Combine held after the NHL's event.

"Our doctors identified a heart issue [last year]. And it was just too risky for us to draft that player. We eventually took that player off our draft board, and communicated with the player, his agent, and his parents about the issue," recounted Timmins. "The player ended up having surgery and rectifying that problem, so it was a win-win for everybody involved in that case."

Teams may not see the Combine results as a crystal ball capable of predicting how a player will turn out, but there are certain things they'll look for depending on the player and position.

"Take a guy like Shea Weber in front of the net. If you want a strong defenseman in front of the net capable of pushing someone, you're going to take a look at the power bench press results. Defensemen have a tendency to be higher than forwards and goalies," outlined Sports Science and Performance Director Pierre Allard, who noted that it wouldn't make much sense for a netminder to rank highly on the bench press given the demands of his position. "But for defensemen, for a specific job, you can look at that."

In the case of Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, taken by Montreal with the third overall pick last June, the Combine indeed identified some green flags on the way to his being selected in Dallas.

"What came out of this Combine was that he had athletic potential, and there was still a lot of growth potential left in him. And there still is today," described Timmins of Kotkaniemi, who scored 11 goals for 34 points in 79 games in his rookie campaign. "He's still young; he's 18 years old. And he's not near his 'man strength'. Seeing that potential, and the upside that he had was what we took away from this Combine last year."

The Canadiens also held Combines of their own in both Montreal and Sweden a year ago in order to expand their knowledge on players that would be available later on in the Draft. And although Timmins did not offer up any details about the Habs' plans for any other Combines in 2019, he did point out that the previous team-run events bore a lot of fruit for the development system.

"In holding our own Combines, last year is a good example of how beneficial it was. We ended up selecting two players in the second round, [Alexander] Romanov and [Jesse] Ylonen, who attended [our] Combine and were not invited for this Combine in Buffalo," Timmins noted of the Russian defenseman and Finnish-American forward. "It looks like they're well on their way to becoming really good prospects and future NHL players."

At the Buffalo Combine, Timmins said the Canadiens interviewed 85 players, foregoing the chance to meet Jack Hughes - expected to be selected first or second overall - among others. Given that the club is picking 15th overall, Timmins and his staff will have to be ready for any number of scenarios as their turn to step up to the podium approaches.

"At 15, I'm guessing that we're going to have anywhere from three to five players to make a decision on that we would like to select," he posited.

The Canadiens' decision-makers will now be lugging a week's worth of information and testing results on those 85 players back with them to Montreal. Next, they'll have to sift through and analyze the data and start marking players' files with red and green flags.

"We're looking for players who have the will to put the effort in - maybe offseason training, in-season training, nutrition - to be able to improve not only as athletes, but hockey players and to reach their potential," he concluded. "We're looking for growth potential here."

Video: Trevor Timmins on the 2019 NHL Scouting Combine

The 2019 NHL Draft takes place on June 21 and 22 in Vancouver.

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