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Wild's Thompson: NHL Combine has 'great value'

by John McGourty

Players who go through the Draft Combine don't neccessarily have to exhibit phenomenal physical strengths, but as Nikita Filatov of the Russia Central Army may find out, the effort and mental makeup go a long way to impressing scouts and NHL front offices.
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TORONTO – After watching 107 of the top draft-eligible prospects go through interviews and physical testing for the hundreds of NHL executives who packed into the Westin Bristol Place Toronto Airport Hotel, the 2008 NHL Scouting Combine ended Saturday afternoon.

The question that League officials will ask themselves is, how did the Combine help them prepare for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, to be held June 20-21 in Ottawa?

Minnesota Wild Assistant General Manager/Player Personnel Tommy Thompson was asked how the Combine helped the Wild's preparations.

"Let's take a step back and look at it as if it's a non-sports business," he told "How many businesses would hire an employee and pay him a million dollars, perhaps, to do a job without ever interviewing that employee? You can look at examples of the employee's work, but you still want to get a feel for the person. That's one of the most important parts of the Combine – the interview process.

"Can a player help or hurt himself here? I suppose the potential is to hurt yourself more than help. Because if a guy is a real nice guy, he doesn't go up from No. 50 to No. 30 on our list. You can either get a bad feeling about a person, whether he has the right personality to be a professional athlete. The reason we have professional help in the interviewing process is because we are trying to detect red flags – the people that might have medical problems, substance-abuse problems or psychological problems.

"In that sense, I suppose you could say it could hurt the person, but perhaps it's a case of putting him in the right spot. I think the interviewing process is very important."

Most of the players who attended the Combine have been under observation by NHL scouts for at least two years. That's why there is no skating component at the Combine. Instead, what the Combine offers teams is a chance to rank their physical conditioning and talk to the young men face to face. In most cases, teams will have several people in the room while talking to a player.

Thompson values the interviews over the physical testing.

"The physical testing is a little like meat on the hoof," he said. "I want to see what their bodies look like. As far as the actual strength test, I wouldn't want to see Wayne Gretzky do the strength test. He wouldn't do very well. I look at the effort and the demeanor of the person. That's important.

"Ninety percent of the players that you want in your top group are here in Toronto. It's a good chance to see them all in one spot."

The year that players go through the Combine is different than almost any other year in his career because most hockey players, when their season ends, let down for a short period of time before beginning a rigorous summer conditioning program that puts them in peak condition for the following season's training camp. Most North American hockey leagues have nine-month seasons, ranging from training camp to the championship series. Players whose teams did not qualify for the playoffs have been idle since early April, while those who played in the Memorial Cup just finished a week ago. Others have been idle since their teams were eliminated from the playoffs.

Thompson was asked if he can detect which of those players have slackened in their conditioning in recent weeks, and does he make allowances for that. As always, he had an interesting perspective on that angle.

"Someone who didn't make the playoffs has had time to recoup and is already into his summer conditioning program and the player who was in the Memorial Cup may be tired," Thompson said. "I don't really look too much at the test results. I'd rather look at the individual. The biggest single change in recent years is what I call the lifestyle of the players. Conditioning used to be seen as an arduous task. Now it's more and more a part of the lifestyle of these players. It's not looked at as a task. It's a normal part of their day-to-day activities. That's been a big change."

NHL Director of Central Scouting E. J. McGuire agreed with Thompson in his ranking of the important elements of the Combine. McGuire said he, too, thinks the interviews are the most helpful to teams, followed by the medical evaluation and then the physical testing.

"We here at NHL Central Scouting want to challenge ourselves to stay abreast of proven new technological and medical advances in the field of physical assessment," McGuire said. "The teams have been open-minded about allowing us to implement some of these innovative concepts.

"We're appreciative of the teams' understanding and support. The bottom line is that we think it adds information to their very difficult task of selecting the right player for their team needs."

The League has used Dr. Ralph Tartar's EXACT Sports psychological testing at the Combine, and the results are made available to all 30 NHL teams. Some teams also use their own psychological evaluations; Thompson said the Wild has additional psychological-evaluation assistance.

"We have our own people involved and our own way of doing it," Thompson said. "Our people help us prepare for the interview after looking at the background of the player. We discuss it with them. They are involved in the interview process and they are involved afterwards with our own testing that we do on certain players."

Only a few general managers attended the Combine. Wild GM Doug Risebrough was here earlier in the week, then left to attend to other duties. Once again, Thompson led the Wild scouting team here at the Combine. He was asked how he shares with Risebrough what he learned here.

"Doug Risebrough is a very proactive guy," Thompson said. "He likes to see as many of the top prospects as he can. With all of his duties and the Wild being a playoff team, it's harder and harder for him to do it. Doug has confidence in our judgment because we see all the players.

"He asks us very probing questions: ‘Are you sure you considered this or that? Why would this guy be different from a certain guy who failed? Are you downgrading a guy too much, because I remember you were leery of a guy that we wound up taking and look how well he has worked out?’

"Doug is a very good sounding board for these types of things. We also bring in players that we have specific concerns about. We also bring in players that we make an intelligent guess might be our first-round pick, four or five of them, and give them our own medical examinations."

Thompson raised a good point. While over 100 players are brought into the Combine, there will be 210 players chosen in the seven rounds of the draft. Teams can interview Combine players and non-Combine players at sites of their choosing, usually in their own facilities.

The Wild will use the next few weeks to conduct interviews with players they are considering drafting.

"There are players that were not invited here that we are very interested in," Thompson said. "We want to do interviews and testing on them. The Combine reduces the number of players that we have to interview on our own. Like a lot of things in hockey, watch what we do, not what we say. We drafted Nick Schultz in the second round, with the 33rd overall pick. Nick played in the NHL at age 19 and just signed a six-year contract. Nick was not one of the players invited to the Combine in his year."

"Pascal Dupuis is playing in the Stanley Cup Final. He went through two drafts and didn't get invited here. The Combine substantially reduces the work that we have to do on our own and it has great value to us."


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