Kraken scouting director Robert Kron and several other hockey operations colleagues were in Buffalo this week for the 2024 NHL Combine, which invites 100 top prospects to gather for interviews with teams, medical exams and fitness testing. For Kron and assistant general manager Alexandra Mandrycky, plus crossover scouts Jeff Crisp, Mike Dawson and Tom O’Connor, the week featured 71 player interviews in 20-minute slots. GM Ron Francis was on hand for part of the week, not missing a chance to see prospects and lay more groundwork for the start of July 1 NHL free agency with other GMs and players agents in town.

The 71 prospect interviews add up to nearly 24 hours of conversation with players the Kraken staff have scouted and evaluated ahead of the 2024 NHL Draft later this month in Las Vegas. It’s the last in-person version of the draft with the team tables. Starting next June, teams will stay back in their draft bunkers at their training centers and headquarters.

But the combine will become no such remote event. Those interviews plus all-important medical reports (especially past and present injuries) and fitness testing to cap the combine week will continue as a final phase of evaluating players to be selected by the Kraken in future NHL drafts. Kron said the Kraken maximize all 20 minutes of the interview slots. It’s not 1-on-1 for the teenage prospects, but more like 1-on-a-half-dozen or more.

“For me personally, it’s putting a face to the player,” said Kron Thursday, taking a break from interviewing 18 more players. “Most of the time, we see these kids in the uniform and with helmets on and [face} cages and all that stuff. This week, it is face-to-face.

“You see how big they are without equipment. We can gauge what kind of physical development they need to go through or not. Also, we look at how they handle themselves in an environment like this. Our area scouts talk to these kids in season and do extensive interviews before the prospects get here. We pretty much have the information we need. We look for consistencies and maybe expand a little bit on what our scouts have dug up.”

There are “no right or wrong answers,” said assistant GM Mandrycky earlier in the week.

“The best interviews don’t necessarily equal the best players,” she said. “We want to know who they are, what motivates them to keep working through a season.”

As for the prospects, it’s a week of not skating or doing any on-ice work but plenty of visits to the gym. Kraken head coach of strength and conditioning Nate Brookreson and assistant strength and conditioning coach Jake Jensen are on hand to evaluate a full day of fitness testing on Saturday.

The workout stations include Y-balance (one leg in area and move it three different directions), grip strength, VO2 max testing (amount of oxygen utilized in grueling spin-bike ride), horizontal jump (aka standing long jump), bench press, shuttle run, pullups and an anaerobic (body operating without oxygen) fitness test that assesses revolutions per five seconds and 30 seconds overall – a reasonable facsimile of the push-yourself physical demands of hockey shift for NHL players.

Brookreson says he especially values specific tests: the standing long jump and the shuttle run, a pro agility test that requires shuttling quickly in multiple directions. Plus, the all-out anaerobic bike test that is the final test station of the day.

“I like those tests for evaluating athletic quality,” said Brookreson. “The bike test is 30 seconds, going as hard as you can. It gives a sense of somebody's ability to sustain output over the course of a shift; it’s a look at average power output.

“The test happens at the very end [of the week-long combine. You get to see how much somebody has left in the tank after going through an entire gamut of interviews and tests and everything. It shows what kind of intensity you are still bringing.”

Mandrycky and Kron both emphasized the testing data is useful but doesn’t tell a complete story. Need an example? Florida Panthers forward Sam Bennett could not complete even one pullup ahead of the 2014 Draft, but Calgary picked him No. 4 overall anyway. This spring, Bennett has notched six goals and four assists, including a game-winner and the first goal in what was a 2-1 Florida Game 6 victory over the New York Rangers that propelled the Panthers into the Stanley Cup Final that starts Saturday with the Edmonton Oilers visiting south Florida for the first two games of the series. Bennett is a noted clutch postseason performer with 24 goals and 28 assists for 52 points in 77 games with Calgary and now Florida.

One value of both the fitness testing and personal interviews is that Mandrycky, Kron, and others can determine a prospect’s current strength and stamina levels and whether there is more to develop in those players’ bodies.

“These kids are 18,” said Mandrycky. “They still have a lot to grow into, maybe not in height but definitely in strength and size.”

There are 62 forwards, 35 defensemen and three goalies attending the combine this week. All are listed in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings of North American and International skaters and goaltenders.

"The NHL Combine is a rite of passage on a player's path to the NHL,” said Dan Marr, the league’s Central Scouting director. “It’s a final showcase for the prospects.”

The event also marks the last major download of information about which players the Kraken hope to draft come the first round on June 28 and rounds two through seven on June 29. The Kraken hockey brain trust might tweak the draft board (probably not much) after the combine findings and right up until draft night. It’s nearly showtime (especially this year at Sphere in Vegas) for young players from North American and Europe who have long dreamed of getting drafted.

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