This year’s NHL Combine is taking place this week in Toronto. The 105 best draft-eligible players in the world are invited to the event, which is one last opportunity for the prospects to improve their draft stock.
The Combine gives all 30 NHL clubs a chance to meet and evaluate the prospects less than a month before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, set for June 22-23 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
There are three main components to the combine – interviews with personnel from each of the league’s 30 teams, rigorous off-ice physical testing (there is no on-ice activity) and medical examinations by independent doctors. The players are watched and graded by scouts, general managers and strength and conditioning coaches throughout the process.
Pittsburghpenguins.com will be in Toronto covering the event, and before our staff hit the road on Wednesday morning, we spoke with Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill about what role the Combine plays in Pittsburgh’s scouting process.
Q. Which of our staff attends?
A. It’s mainly our amateur scouts. Attending this year is our director of player personnel, Dan McKinnon, our director of amateur scouting, Jay Heinbuck, and our assistant director of scouting, Randy Sexton. Then we will also have Joe Lorincz, our strength coach in Wilkes-Barre, for the physical testing element of it. The main thing that goes on at the Combine is the interview process. You have a 20-minute interview with the kids that you select, and it’s just a situation where you get to know the kids a little bit better. Our regional scouts will have already met most of the kids, but here’s an opportunity for sort of our head guys to meet a lot of the higher-end guys.
Q. There’s no on-ice activity at the Combine, just interviews and off-ice fitness tests. How important is it to get a chance to get to know some of the prospects off the ice?
A. You get to know them a little bit and just to have a feel for the player. We’ve watched the player throughout the year quite a bit. It is an important element of it, but it’s also a situation where it is a 20-minute interview. You can’t deduct too much from it. That’s just where we ask our regional scouts to do a lot more due diligence on finding out about the player’s character, how the player interacts with his teammates, how the player interacts with his billets or his teachers in school. They’ve done most of the work already, so this is a situation where we are just sort of getting a little more understanding of the player at a higher level.
Q. When you’re picking late in the first round – like we are this summer with the 22nd overall selection – does the Combine take on an added importance in determining which prospect to choose?
A. I think it’s always important, I don’t think this year is different from any other year. If you’re picking in the top 10, obviously you have the pressure of making sure that the player is a star-type player that’s going to help your organization for years to come. But the bottom line is, you have to have players in the cap system coming through your system, and the important part of evaluating players and making the decision of who we want to add to our organization. The fact is that our scouts have done a pretty good job, especially when you look at the defensemen. From that standpoint, you have young defensemen such as Joseph Morrow, Simon Despres, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo being players that we think can help our organization in the future. It’s key.
Q. Are there certain qualities our organization looks for in the prospects at the Combine?
A. I think we talk a lot in our organization about a player’s hockey sense and their willingness to compete. Obviously when you talk about compete level, a lot of people immediately think about physical play and being big and tough. Sidney Crosby is not throwing huge checks all the time, but every time he goes in the corner he finds a way to win that one-on-one battle. That’s the type of players we want – players who can be smart enough to play in our system, players who can understand the adjustments that our coaching staff want to make and play with some of the elite players that we have, but we also want players who are willing to compete and battle hard in important situations.
Q. How does our organization view the Combine?
A. It’s a situation where the Combine is just another piece of the puzzle because the testing is not a secret. People can prepare for that. You do have a lot of fluctuation. You have some players whose seasons have been over since February, and then you have other players who just finished up the Memorial Cup. Players are in different stages. Some players are going to be probably pretty worn out from the season, while other players can be rested. Our scouts have been watching these players for the last couple of years. We’ve done our due diligence and it’s just trying to get a little bit more information that can help you make a decision, because it is a very difficult decision for our amateur staff.