By: Alan Adams
TORONTO - Peter Mueller was fidgeting with his hands as he sat in a hotel room near the Pearson International Airport. Mueller is one of the top prospects in the June 24 NHL Draft and everywhere he looked he saw someone connected with the Phoenix Coyotes.
To his left sat General Manager Mike Barnett and Cliff Fletcher, Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations. Tom Kurvers, the Director of Player Personnel, was to his right as was amateur scout Keith Gretzky. A handful of other scouts ringed the table.
Mueller was one of 110 players eligible for the June 24 NHL Draft in Vancouver who spent the first weekend of June being tested and prodded by the NHL's 30 teams at the NHL Draft Combine. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Mueller played for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League this season and he is touted as one of the top power forwards available in the draft.
"So what about Bob Marley?" said Barnett, getting a round of laughs from the table and a surprised look on Mueller's face.
"Great artist," said Mueller, who had listed reggae superstar musician as one of the people who he would like to have dinner with.
"Got that right," said Barnett.
The light-hearted exchange came at the end of a 20-minute interview Mueller had with the Coyotes, during which he was queried about what he perceived as his strengths and weaknesses as a player, his goals for next season along with a long list of other questions.
Most of the draft-eligible prospects received some sort of media training prior to the Draft Combine and have stock answers prepared for the interview sessions. Mueller showed a sense of humor as he took the questions from the Coyotes front office.
Draft choices are the lifeblood of a franchise and Barnett and his staff have worked non-stop scouring the hockey map for talent. The Coyotes have the eighth overall pick in the first round and multiple picks in the second.
The interviews - the Coyotes had about 60 over a four-day period - were one part of the eval uation process at the Draft Combine, now in its 12th year. The other was a series of physical tests conducted by a team of exercise physiologists that measured everything from body-fat measurement to grip strength.
There were about a dozen stations in the tests, several of which required very little exertion by the participants. It doesn't take much effort, after all, to be weighed, or to have one's height or body fat measured.
Bench-pressing weights and doing push-ups is pretty standard stuff, and there's nothing terribly draining about doing a standing long jump, bending so that trunk flexion can be eval uated or having vertical leap measured.
But the tests that drew the most interest are two grueling tests on stationary bikes -- one that measures short-term muscle power and endurance over 45 seconds, and another, lengthier test known as "VO2MAX" that measures the body's ability to deliver oxygen to muscles over a longer period.
The second test is particularly harsh. The players have their feet taped to the pedals of a stationary bike, while they pedal as furiously as possible for a half-minute, while a computer monitored the decline in their speed over that period.
What teams are looking for is that raw explosiveness, breaking out of the gate, along with endurance and the ability to sustain something. The tests are designed to mimic an NHL shift.
"It's part of the process, part of the eval uation tool," says Barnett.
Scouting isn't an exact science and one man's hamburger is another's filet mignon. There are some players Barnett knows will play if not right away then in a year or two. Others he hopes his instincts are right.
The buzz on the Class of '06 is there is no player like Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby or Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. But there is high-end talent available there for the taking.
The consensus top prospect is defenseman Erik Johnson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 development team. There are also talented forwards in Phil Kessel of the University of Minnesota, Jonathan Toews of the University of North Dakota, Jordan Staal of the Peterborough Petes (his brother is Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes), Derick Brassard of Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Nicklas Backstrom of Brynas of the Swedish Elite League, along with Mueller.
Brassard was interviewed by the Coyotes. He had a strong second half of the season and is a dynamite forward. Brassard was asked about his conditioning plans for the summer and in particular how long each day he planned to be in the gym.
"You get a little bit of insight into their level of personal confidence, where they are at in understanding the single most important thing they have to understand and that is the commitment they have to make to themselves," said Barnett. "That's why I asked him how long he was planning on going to the gym. Some guys think 45 minutes is enough and guys in the NHL go twice a day sometimes, two hours each time."
Barnett and Fletcher have been coming to the Draft Combine for a dozen years and they know both its value and limitations to the overall process of being prepared for the draft.
"This whole process you can't be too over-valued," continued Barnett about the Combine. "Often you will find in the testing that the ones who go the furthest are the sons of former players because they have got the religion earlier than the rest. So some of these kids look like they are behind when in fact it might be they did not get the direction these kids have had and once they get in the organization they will get that direction.
"You can't get too under-whelmed by a player who is behind physically or over-whelmed by someone who looks to be way ahead. They are so young. All of it can give you one more insight to where they are at in terms of the commitment they have to make and the understanding of what the commitment means.''
Barnett also used the time at the Combine to talk to other GMs about the prospects of making deals at the draft. Teams will often have a player in mind and will make a deal involving a player on their pro roster along with a pick or a couple of picks in order to get him.
The idea is to get value-plus for your pick.
"From the middle of the first round on it is going to be a lot less predictable than the last five, six years," says Barnett about where he anticipates the prospects going in the draft. "You can possibly see players who were rated first being picked in the third round and players rated in the fourth going on the first. That is why we like the idea of having multiple picks as much as having a high pick. It is a good year to have early multiple picks."
With that, Barnett and his staff went back to work, preparing for the draft.