|Fitness testing helped the Senators confirm that defenceman Jared Cowen was the right choice as their first-round selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).
Maybe it's not exactly like a final exam.
But in the eyes and minds of the 100 or so top prospects attending the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto, the fitness testing portion of the event truly is one last big chance to impress team personnel across the league before the annual entry draft.
Over six days at the Westin Bristol Place, the Ottawa Senators will pay particularly close attention to the players who might be available with their selections — including the 16th overall pick — in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, set for June 25-26 at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles.
Director of player personnel Pierre Dorion handles one-on-one interviews with about 50 prospects that the Senators have their eyes on heading into the draft. Then Randy Lee, the team's director of player development and hockey administration, jumps into the fray for the fitness testing sessions along with strength and conditioning coach Chris Schwarz.
"We talk to the scouts — Pierre Dorion and his staff — and they give us a hit list of guys they anticipate being available when we select in those rounds," said Lee. "What we do is focus in on those players and try to get a complete assessment of where they're at (in terms of development).
"From there, we're basically able to project where we think they're going to get to — if they've matured enough that they're sort of maxed out (already), or if they're very raw and have a lot of upside. The biggest thing we have to do is see if there are any conditioning red flags or if there are any injury red flags."
If the latter is the case, head athletic therapist Gerry Townend or one of the team's doctors, Don Chow or Mark Aubry, are called upon for further examination. That was exactly the case a year ago with Jared Cowen
, the 6-5 blueliner from the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs whose season was cut short by reconstructive knee surgery. But after receiving medical clearance, the Senators made Cowen the ninth overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
A year earlier, the Sens scouting staff faced a different concern when it became enamoured with Erik Karlsson
, a highly-skilled Swedish defenceman who stood 5-foot-11 and was listed at 157 pounds. But the combine testing and interviews helped convince general manager Bryan Murray it was worth trading up in the draft to ensure he could land Karlsson, now a rising star on the Ottawa blue line.
"We looked at (Karlsson) and brought him in for specialty training," said Lee. "We talked to him through the interview process and to make sure ... he was a smaller guy and we wanted to make sure there were no huge red flags saying 'sure, he's that good, but he can't play at the NHL level.'
"It's like a poker game. You have to be careful not to tip who you're following. Sometimes, you'll bluff and follow a certain guy ... you try to do that sort of thing and you've got to be careful with your reports and make sure nobody sees them. A lot of times we'll overhear guys talking. It's a pretty competitive business." - Randy Lee
"With Erik, there was lots of room for upside and lots of willingness to learn. The biggest thing is their frame size, a lot of times, and their physical maturity level. Some of them are boys and some of them are men. And some of them have been men for three or four years and some of them are late bloomers. To us, the late bloomer, compared to the mature guy, has way more upside."
Perhaps the trickiest part of the combine is not giving away your hand, so to speak, as you hone in on certain prospects. On a floor crawling with all sorts of NHL team personnel, it's no easy task, especially in a world that is often smaller than you think.
"You think about how many guys are the combine that we used to work with," said Lee. "There's Peter Chiarelli, Ray Shero, Trevor Timmons, Frank Jay ... a lot of people who were on our staff. Basically, they know my routine because I've worked with them before doing this.
"So it's like a poker game. You have to be careful not to tip who you're following. Sometimes, you'll bluff and follow a certain guy ... you try to do that sort of thing and you've got to be careful with your reports and make sure nobody sees them. A lot of times we'll overhear guys talking. It's a pretty competitive business."
When the testing it's done, Lee said, it isn't just a matter of laying numbers side by side and comparing them. Other variables come into play.
"With a lot of energy system tests, the biggest thing we have to interpret is when was the last time the guy played?" he said. "If he just finished the Memorial Cup, he's in better game shape and aenerobically, he'd be better than a guy who didn't make the playoffs and has been out for two months.
"We have to take that read. You can't compare apples to apples when it's not."