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Interviews let teams get to know top prospects

by Adam Kimelman

2008 NHL Draft prospects, like Alex Pietrangelo, have only 20 minutes in a room to answer questions and impress NHL brass, including front-office personnel and NHL alumni and Hall of Famers.
TORONTO – With 107 of the best prospects for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft at the Scouting Combine, the players are being tested in multiple ways.

The medical and physical tests will start Friday; in the meantime, teams are testing the mental acuity of the draft hopefuls through the interview process.

Teams place a varying amount of importance on the interviews, but all 30 teams have rooms at the Westin Bristol Place Toronto Airport Hotel, and they've been bringing in draft hopefuls by the dozen.

"This is just 20 minutes," said Craig Oster, an agent for Newport Sports, which represents a number of the top prospects, including Steven Stamkos and Alex Pietrangelo. "It's almost like speed dating, making your best impression in a short period of time."

"You don't put all your stock into it, it's more or less seeing if what you saw on the ice is the same thing here," said Craig Channell, a scout for the St. Louis Blues. "If not, you can dig further, ask more questions."

The Blues met with 15 prospects Wednesday, and allowed the unique opportunity to sit in on two of them – Shattuck-St. Mary's forward Derek Stepan and Swedish goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom, the top-ranked European netminder.

Stepan was first into the room. It was the start of a long day for the 17-year-old Minnesota native – the Blues were the first of 16 interviews he had scheduled for Wednesday.

It can be an exhausting process, which the teams understand.

"You have to remember they're just 17-years-old," Channell said. "A lot of these kids are in Grade 12. Think back to what you were like in Grade 12. We had no idea what we wanted to do. It's intimidating walking into a room of four or five guys. Some teams have Hall of Famers in their room. Last year we had Al MacInnis, and some kids were in awe of it. Here are guys they look up to, idolize as young kids, and now they're sitting across from them. It's intimidating."

If Stepan was intimidated, he did a good job of hiding it. He arrived early for his 8:55 a.m. interview, and confidently greeted the Blues' group – Assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen, and amateur scouts Channell, Basil McRae and Rick Meagher.

After some small talk, it was a light barrage of questions thrown at Stepan, all by Channell.

When asked why he chose Shattuck over his local high school, Hastings, Stepan said he picked Shattuck not just for the hockey – the school has produced a number of NHL stars, including Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews – but for the education.

"The school is a big part for our family," he said, and he's proving that by leaving Thursday to return for Shattuck's graduation ceremony Friday.

After that came questions about why he chose the University of Wisconsin for next season, rather than stay in-state at the University of Minnesota.

"Wisconsin just appealed to me more," Stepan said. "When I went on my visit, it felt like the spot I wanted to be at. When I went to the U, it was just too close to home, didn't really feel like the right spot for me."

Next came questions about how his style of play would mesh with the Wisconsin system run by coach Mike Eaves.

"He's a hard, demanding coach," warned Channell. "Your off-ice work will be nothing you've ever experienced before."

Stepan never blinked, and talked some more about how he was looking forward to getting to Madison and getting to work.

Then Stepan was quizzed about his style of play and how he sees himself.

"I'm hard-working, a guy that comes every day ready to rock and roll at the rink," said Stepan. "A guy that understands the game and a guy that can lead this team to where it needs to be led to."

As far as where his game needs to go, Stepan said, "I definitely need to get stronger. That's kind of the cloud over my head now. I'm getting there, but I still have a ways to go."

The final result was a positive experience for both Stepan and the Blues.

"I really didn't know what they were going to ask me, but after I got in there I kind of settled in," he said. "I wasn't too scared at all. I felt really comfortable. I've done two or three of these before I got here. It's one of those things where you can't be nervous. You have to be yourself and hope for the best."

Stepan said he relied on his father and his coaches at Shattuck to prepare for the interviews. The top Canadian prospects have agents who are able to help them.

"The biggest thing is for them to be themselves," said Oster. "We don't want them to be coached, we don't want them to be schooled. We don't want them to tell teams the answers they think they want the teams to hear. Ideally, we want the teams to know the players for who and what they are as people. They've watched them as players; they've got a good read as to who they are as players, so in a short, 20-minute time frame, you're trying to let them get to know their personalities a little bit. Some are more shy, some are outgoing. It's really about trying to get them to get across as much as they can about themselves to the teams so the teams know who they're drafting as well as what they're drafting."

The Blues also wanted to know what they might get in Markstrom. Just 17, he's already the starter for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. Kekalainen, though, wanted to know how Markstrom dealt with adversity.

"I go for an easy run, try to clear my mind, relax," he said. "I run after the game, then try to go home and sleep, and then practice, and by the next game, let it go."

Kekalainen was satisfied with the answer.

"I just wanted to find out about the process he goes through in his mind when you don't perform so well," he said. "I'm a big believer that goalies, how good they are going to be is between the ears, the confidence."

Kekalainen also asked Markstrom about his potential competition for next winter's World Junior Championship. Markstrom knew who his competition would be, and didn't hesitate to say he would be the starter.

"He seems to know exactly where he fits in and what he can do and is very confident in that," said Kekalainen. "You can tell he's a confident kid, level-headed. I was impressed with him."

Those 20-minute snapshots of Derek Stepan and Jacob Markstrom, plus the approximately 50 other prospects the team will meet with during the interview process, will go into the Blues' final draft list when they assemble in Ottawa.

"At the end of the day, what we tell our guys are these interviews are helpful. I think they're helpful for the teams, but in large part the teams are going to make their decisions based on what they've watched the kids do 20, 30, 40 times throughout the year," Oster said. "They're not going to make a decision based on a 20-minute interview. If you go in and absolutely bomb on an interview, it's not going to kill you, and if you go in and absolutely ace the interview, it's not going to rocket you up anybody's chart."

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