At the NHL scouting combine the cagey sit near the spot where prospects peel off their shirts. It makes sense. No one shops in the dark.
For the brutal contrast between the comfort and the agony of the NHL life, you can’t beat the combine, staged this week at a Toronto Airport hotel.
One hundred and four draft-age players and nine goalies from all over the world have been tested, assessed, taken out for dinner and scrutinized by the scouting staffs from all 30 teams.
They are quizzed on everything from what their parents do, to what they see as the key elements of their game, to whether they would rather have dinner with a starlet or a president.
And then they are taken to the assessment room, where all the scouts watch as they are viciously tested for everything from recovery time to maximum bench press. Media are allowed in and there are hundreds of people in the room as the players rotate between tests.
Some players puke during the testing. Imagine a doctor’s appointment that sits 500 spectators, one where every imperfection is noted and one slip on the grid can be the difference between a good situation and a miserable one.
Not that an incomplete physique will automatically disqualify a player. Fact is, Wayne Gretzky would have been a miserable failure at just such a combine and it worked out all right for him.
“It’s two-pronged,” said Leafs scouting director Dave Morrison. “You want to see where they are because maybe you can tell if they have a good attitude. You want to see an effort, a desire to compete.”
But Morrison also recognizes that some of the fittest prospects have left themselves little room for growth. Some scouts and managers don’t mind the sight of a kid who might not stand out at the beach. At the end of the day, it’s all about upside.
“It’s part of the process. Some kids may feel overwhelmed but it’s just one more bit of information,” said Morrison.
Leafs’ GM Brian Burke has moved kids dramatically up or down the list based on what he saw at the combine. He doesn’t sit in on the original interviews but cherrypicks the top or at least the ones with the most attainable prospects.
“The top kids, I will grab some time one on one time with,” he said. “I think you find some useful information out of them.”
Burke said he is no closer to orchestrating a deal to land the pick that will bring John Tavares. The two times he’s moved up, he did his dealing on the floor and he expects this year to be no different.
Tavares, meanwhile, was being graded like everyone else. He is recovering from a shoulder injury, but with the first overall pick likely in his back pocket, he has not trained simply for the combine but to be game ready in October.
“I’m close to being 100 per cent,” he said.
Zack Kassian, a power forward for the Peterborough Petes, may well be one of the players who chat with Burke. A big, physical forward, Kassian brings the truculence Burke so covets.
“I need to be physical and people need to watch out,” he said. “That’s got to be my style.”