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Jets busy in Buffalo, interviewing 86 draft-eligible prospects at Combine

by Mitchell Clinton (@MClinton007) / Winnipeg Jets

BUFFALO, New York — For the second straight season, the Winnipeg Jets have two picks in the first round of the NHL Draft, making for a busy week in Buffalo for General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff.

Before the week at the 2016 NHL Combine is over, Cheveldayoff and the Jets will interview 86 of the 114 prospects attending the event.

“We’ve got 70 in the books and 16 left to go for the next day,” Cheveldayoff said Thursday at the conclusion of the day’s interviews. “It’s been a good week. There’s been some great interviews, there’s been some interesting interviews. There’s always some time for some laughs in some of the questions and answers. You try to make the players feel at ease so you get to know them a little bit.”

The 20-minute interviews can reveal a lot about a player, according to Cheveldayoff. The answers they receive can fill in the blanks when it comes to point production or injuries.

“It’s amazing how many times you find out something. Whether it’s ‘why did you go through a slump in November?’ or just different things like that, it might be a sick parent or an illness that they had that you just don’t know,” he said. “You don’t get to ask the questions, you don’t find out.”

The second overall pick will be the highest selection the Jets have had since relocating to Winnipeg since 2011.

Cheveldayoff says having that pick, thanks to April’s NHL Draft Lottery, has helped the team focus on a smaller group of players that they want to know a lot about. But he doesn’t feel that’s the only spot where this year’s Draft will be interesting.

He points to the team’s 22nd overall selection as one that brings a number of prospects into play.

“There’s a real wide opinion of players at that realm. There could be players that some teams may have at ten, and some teams are going to have at 26,” said Cheveldayoff.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact the Jets own an early pick in the second round as well: number 36.

“Generally speaking what happens on day two is everybody goes back to their suites at their hotels, goes back to the meeting, and says ‘I can’t believe this guy is still on the table,’” said Cheveldayoff. “There’s lots of work to be done on the due diligence side, but it’s an important and exciting time.”

Including those picks, the Jets currently have seven selections to make come the Draft, which will be held at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY June 24 and 25.

COMING FULL CIRCLE

This year’s NHL Draft is one of change for the Winnipeg Jets.

Since 2011, Marcel Comeau has served as the Director of Amateur Scouting for the team, but after taking a step back to spend more time with family, Comeau’s spot has been filled by Mark Hillier.

Hillier has worked as Winnipeg’s head scout for the last five years, and is no stranger to the title of Director of Amateur Scouting. He held that position with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1999-2002.

“It makes me feel old,” Hiller laughed. “I think I was the youngest in the league in 1999. I think I was 29 years old at the time. Everything has come full circle.”

Hillier said when he started scouting with the Maple Leafs in 1995, cell phones were just starting to come available.

“I had just got my first cell phone and we were just starting to put reports into the computer. Everything before that was hand written scouting reports that scouts would mail in from the road,” he said. “People had calling cards. You’d call home once a week with the calling card.”

The St. John’s, NL native said back then there was no event like the NHL Combine. Now, it’s a valuable week for teams to learn more about prospects that could play a big role in the future of their franchises.

“I think 95 percent is what we see on the ice on a player,” said Hillier. “There’s lots of components: how the player skates, his skill, his hockey sense, his size. (When we’re) meeting the kids (and) seeing their personality, we try to see if the personality off the ice meets the personality on the ice.”

After the interviews comes the fitness testing. Besides Friday’s VO2 Max bike test, all fitness events will be held Saturday at the HarborCenter, beginning at 7:30 am.

“If the kid doesn’t test well, that doesn’t mean we take him off the list. If a kid blows the testing out of the water, it doesn’t mean we move him up the list. It’s just kind of a gauge of where he’s at,” Hillier said. “It tells us what that particular kid needs to work on in the summer, and what he needs to work on going forward to be a pro.”

— Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com

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