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Combine key tool in draft process

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Before slipping on a Senators jersey at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, defenceman Erik Karlsson impressed team management with the confidence he showed at the annual scouting combine in Toronto. This year's crop of top prospects arrived at the Westin Bristol Place today (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).

It isn't necessarily make or break. But it can definitely have an impact.

Representatives from all 30 teams are at the Westin Bristol Place in Toronto starting today for the annual National Hockey League Scouting Combine. They'll watch with a keen eye as more than 100 prospects for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft go through a battery of fitness drills on Friday and Saturday.

Between today and Thursday, team officials will get the chance to sit down for a series of one-on-one interviews with the players, hoping to glean key nuggets of insight about the character of the talent that's available for the June 26-27 draft in Montreal.

The Ottawa Senators contingent at the combine is headed up by director of hockey operations Brent Flahr, director of player development Randy Lee and head scout Pierre Dorion. They'll pay particular attention to the players who might still be on the board when the Senators make the No. 9 selection they now hold in the first round, along with the seven other picks currently at their disposal (two each in the second and fifth rounds, plus one apiece in the fourth, sixth and seventh).

The tricky part, said Lee, is doing your homework while managing to keep roving eyes from the rest of the league's teams from sneaking a peek over your shoulders.

"During the fitness testing portion of the combine, we will discreetly try to follow certain players," said Lee. "You've got representatives from every team there, so it's a tough job to navigate yourself without giving away who you're following. It's a horseshoe-type setup and the players come in and go through a circuit of tests.

"So what you try to do is follow (your targeted players), try to look at their effort, look at their results and look at any limitations they seem to have physically and you try to get an assessment of where they're at in terms of development and in terms of maturity."

While the combine is a key tool in helping teams put the finishing touches on their draft lists, Flahr said it's important to keep what happens this week in perspective. He uses the word "tweak" to describe what will happen to the list after this week's event.

"That's the danger of the combine," he said of overanalyzing the test results. "A kid could have a bad interview and you move him down on your list. It doesn't mean he's a bad hockey player. It means maybe he's not a good talker.

"And there are guys that have bad workouts that plummet or guys that have exceptional workouts that go up (in the pre-draft rankings). It doesn't mean they're better players. It means that they're good athletes or well-conditioned athletes at this point. You've got to find the happy medium and feel comfortable with the player going into the draft."

Added Lee: "I tell (the scouting staff) straight out, never should something we see (at the combine) override the fact they see that much talent in them. Some guys have things they'll have to overcome. But sometimes if you're not sure about a guy and then there's this red flag there, you have to be careful about it.

"Draft picks are critical. Our job is to translate these guys into pro players. The biggest thing is to project upside and identify weaknesses or shortcomings, especially if it's a red flag that could be a real hindrance to a guy's development."

At the end of the day, talent can't be ignored. While the Senators had concerns about the size of Erik Karlsson prior to the 2008 NHL Entry Draft at Scotiabank Place (he was listed at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds), that didn't stop the team from making the gifted Swedish blueliner its first-round pick (15th overall).

"Draft picks are critical. Our job is to translate these guys into pro players. The biggest thing is to project upside and identify weaknesses or shortcomings, especially if it's a red flag that could be a real hindrance to a guy's development." - Randy Lee
"We had to look closely at Erik Karlsson because he's such a small guy," said Lee. "But we realized that if he's such a talent and he competes – he's very competitive, he's very confident – that really, once he acquires the physical attributes to play at the NHL level, he's going to be even that much better."

Said Flahr: "Some guys are fully grown and are men already. Some kids, like Erik Karlsson... he's a boy physically but he's such a great talent that the sky is the limit."

While a first-round pick is important in any draft, Flahr agreed making the right choice is especially critical when selecting within the top 10.

"You can't be wrong. You don't want to be when you're picking at nine," he said. "If you're picking in the top five, you can pretty much pencil in that you're getting (a choice between) one or two guys. At nine, guys slide in, so you won't know what's available until draft day.

"So you just put your list in order, the guys that you want, and go from there."

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