BUFFALO – The NHL Scouting Combine was always a fixture in Toronto, but Buffalo hosted the event for the first time in 2015 and left a big impression on teams and players.
The Combine was held at First Niagara Center and the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo and allowed all the events from interviews to workouts to be held in its own space.
"I’m not sure you’re going to find a bad word," New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero said. "I mean in terms of how this has been run and the Buffalo Sabres what they've done and now with this new facility, it's a great opportunity to show people what this is like. They put a lot of time and effort into this, and certainly money, but for the kids and the staff this whole week has been really, really good."
Player interviews were held on the suite level of First Niagara Center from June 2-5. Through that part of the week, players also had medical screening at Buffalo General Medical Center and VO2Max testing at HarborCenter. Having all these facilities available and nearby proved to be a big help.
"It's been excellent," Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "From the organization, the efficiency of the interviews, the players were on time - they were actually early, the privacy of the interviews. I just think today it's very professional. The facility is state of the art."
For team scouts, moving the Combine out of a hotel in Toronto to a vast setup in Buffalo was a welcomed change.
"It's been the best combine, it's seamless and the organization that Buffalo has done with Dan Marr and Central Scouting has been flawless," Chicago Blackhawks senior director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley said. "I’m sure for Dan and Central, there are some things we don’t see since it is the first time here, but everything has been so punctual. The interviews in the suite area have been good. So much more relaxed and comfortable for the players and now with the testing over in the practice rinks, it's been great. Buffalo has been a great host."
The impression Buffalo left on the players has been equally as strong.
"I've watched Sabres games, but to actually be in this rink, its top notch," Seattle Thunderbirds forward Mathew Barzal said. "It's unreal. Having the HarborCenter right here and everything's so close, it's a perfect setup for this kind of event."
Having the Combine facilities next door was helpful, but the players’ hotel was also located in the same area, which helped make the Combine easier on the prospects.
"Having the hotel right across the street makes it that much easier for the players and that much more comfortable," Kingston Frontenacs forward Lawson Crouse said. "For the most part, I think the majority of the guys enjoyed the experience and it's a huge learning experience for myself. I can take a lot away from it."
The 2015 Combine also featured two new physical tests for the players and provided a different look than in previous years.
The Y-Balance test measures each player’s strength, flexibility, and core control. It was also used to demonstrate functional symmetry and identify players at a greater risk for lower extremity injury. The Jump Force Plate was used to measure a player’s vertical jump as well as measure the direction, strength, and timing of the forces the player produces during hockey related movement.
"We've upgraded a number of the tests, eliminated some tests that were really antiquated 10 years ago," Maloney said. "So all in all I think this has been a major step forward in making this a, not only more professional, but getting more, better data and better information out of why we're all doing this. Everybody has a strength coach and there are varying degrees of movement tests that we're now introducing. With the ways data is being studied and manipulated, it will hopefully allow us to make better decisions and that's why we're doing this. I think Dan Marr and his staff have done a terrific job."
Buffalo will host the Combine again in 2016 and will also host the 2016 NHL Draft. With the 2015 Combine being Buffalo’s first chance to host a major NHL event since the HarborCenter opened on Oct. 31, 2014, making a good impression was important.
"The feedback we’ve received from the League, from the prospects, from the teams has all been all very, very positive," Sabres President Ted Black said on Thursday. "Especially the veterans of this event that have attended this before and see just how different this is. I think this has been a positive experience all the way around and it's one I think we can get much, much better when we do it again next year."
The last time Buffalo hosted the NHL draft was in 1998 at First Niagara Center and before that in 1991 at the Memorial Auditorium. Things have changed drastically in the city since then.
"Buffalo has had the draft before, but I lived in Buffalo a long time ago for three years when my father [Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero] was coaching the Bisons way back in the AHL," Shero said. "This, obviously, from the Pegulas and what they've done, the downtown is just fantastic and the excitement for a lot of the growth that's gone on here - it's the excitement of the draft.
"And certainly for the combine, whether it's Toronto or Buffalo, for the players to come from Europe to get here is not that hard which is important, but in terms of the draft next year this is all part and parcel to get excited about... So with Buffalo, this city is just changing and having lived here, this has been great and I look forward to the draft here next year."
The future of the Combine, as far as where it will be located after 2016, has yet to be determined. If another city is hoping to land the annual event, those cities may need a similar setup to make it work.
"If you start with the interview process, [in Toronto] you're in a hotel room and you get 8-to-10 people cramped into a hotel room and after six, seven hours of doing that, you just want it to get over with, number one," Maloney said. "And two, the efficiency of moving people around [Buffalo] to be all under one roof. You had a lunch room set up and even there it was spacious and the food was excellent. Then you come in [HarborCenter] and you see it - it's been efficient. There’s been no lag time between testing groups and I think the whole look is much more professional. To me, this is a real combine.
"I do think this has been a positive step forward for the NHL teams and give us what we need and why we're doing this."