Tim Burke is sitting at a table at an airport hotel with a handful of colleagues, watching video of a prospect on a laptop computer for the umpteenth time.
Burke is the Director of Scouting for the San Jose Sharks. He’s the bloodhound Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson trusts to find the players to build a franchise with. Draft choices are the lifeblood of a franchise and Burke and his staff have worked non-stop scouring the hockey map for talent.
Burke, Wilson and the Sharks scouting staff have assembled here in the unofficial center of the hockey universe for the annual NHL Draft Combines. For four days, about 100 prospects for the June 24 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver are on parade and teams are taking advantage of their availability.
On this day, Burke takes the lead role in interviewing about a dozen of the four dozen prospects he has scheduled time with. The interviews are one part of the evaluation process at the Combines. The other is a series of physical tests conducted by a team of exercise physiologists that measure everything from body-fat measurement to grip strength.
There are about a dozen stations in the tests, several of which require very little exertion by the participants. It doesn't take much effort, after all, to be weighed, or to have one's height or body fat measured.
Bench-pressing weights and doing push-ups is pretty standard stuff, and there's nothing terribly draining about doing a standing long jump, bending so that trunk flexion can be evaluated or having vertical leap measured.
But the tests that draw the most interest are two grueling tests on stationary bikes -- one that measures short-term muscle power and endurance over 45 seconds, and another, lengthier test known as "VO2MAX" that measures the body's ability to deliver oxygen to muscles over a longer period.
The second test is particularly harsh. The players have their feet taped to the pedals of a stationary bike, while they pedal as furiously as possible for a half-minute, while a computer monitored the decline in their speed over that period.
“You are looking at raw explosiveness, breaking out of the gate, and you are looking at endurance, the ability to sustain something. It tells you the type of player he is,” says Burke. “A Chris Pronger or a Nik Lidstrom blew this place apart, but yet a smaller guy you want to see the explosiveness. At that size you need to get away.”
Scouting isn’t an exact science and one man’s hamburger is another’s filet mignon. There are some players Burke knows will play if not right away then in a year or two. Others he hopes his instincts are right.
“Based on what we know, past history, and testing of prospects, there are other guys (besides the top picks) who might be a little bit of a project and you have to look ahead, look down the road four years,” says Burke.
An example is Sharks defenseman Rob Davison, who was drafted in 1998 draft and took until this season, when he played 69 games for San Jose, to make the cut. “We saw a good athlete who could skate but other parts of his game needed work and he had the character to work through it,” continues Burke.
While no player has ever made or lost a roster spot because of the process, the scouting combines is a useful tool for Burke and the other 29 teams. Besides the physical testing, teams use the time to conduct interviews with the prospects. Some of the questions are redundant. Prospects get asked about his family but every now and then, a team would lob a curveball and then wait to see what the response would be.
“You almost have to ask certain things to stay away from clichés and not let them say it. You have to force them to do it and you have to get them out of the can. A degree of innocence is not bad,” says Burke.
“I remember an interview with Rod Brind’Amour (now with the Carolina Hurricanes). If he did not know the answer, he would look you in the eye and say, ‘I do not know.’ Now you get some kids who will say, ‘I will handle that or I can handle that.” You ask a kid about fighting Bob Probert and they say, ‘I can handle that.’ Right.’’
Thanks to the Sharks extensive video library and the wonders of technology, Burke has another tool at his disposal in his evaluation process and that is his laptop computer.
What happens is Burke will be interviewing a prospect and will ask him either about how he thinks he would react in a certain situation or whether he recalled how handled a situation in a game during the past season.
Burke waits for the response and plays the video afterwards.
“If there is a kid we know and like, we will ask him specific questions and show him the video. We want explanations. If you are going to be in the seventh game of a playoff series, we want to know what you are going to do,” says Burke. “We had a guy in here and we asked him about a specific situation. He said it has never happened to him and we had a tape and we played it. ‘What is this, banging your stick in frustration in front of your bench in a big game? Here’s the tape. If you bang a stick in front of your bench while in the NHL, your teammates will kill you.’ He did know how to answer.”
“We say to them; ‘You think you are going to hide your mistake. No. The press doesn’t miss much and if the press does not see it, we will.”
The under-lying theme is a player is responsible for his actions, and the Sharks try to be as thorough as possible in evaluating the prospects in preparation for the draft.
This is the 12th year the NHL has played host to a scouting combines and in some ways it marks the unofficial start of the 2006-07 NHL season. About two dozen GMs will attend the tests and there is no doubt there will be discussions about trades.
Burke is sort of oblivious to all of that, however.
His focus is the combines.
Burke paused for a second, glanced out a window at the heavy Toronto air and then looked around the table to his fellow bloodhounds. And with the nod of a head they were back at work, studying video or talking about which questions they should ask at the next interview.
“I think the combine is one of the tools we use in evaluating the players,” says Burke. “With this number of kids, it does help eliminate some kids. But if you are going to make a final decision on some guys you like, I think it is a mistake.
“The trick is to get as many of them as you think can play and this is part of the elimination. If a kid does not pass the physical test but he does show explosiveness and he has great hands and is a big time scorer, you might have him in for more tests and interviews after the combines get our people to look at him.
“We can’t look at trends (in the NHL) and about what is happening on the ice. You (i.e. the prospects) still have to grow up, mentally and physically. When you look at some of the previous drafts, so many guys you thought might make it ended up playing. You know who the top guys are but you always have to be looking four years down the road.”
That said, Burke and his staff of scouts went back to the work. There was a knock at the door and the next wannabe member of the San Jose Sharks walked into the room for his interview.
“Have a seat,” says Burke.
With that, the preparation for the June 25 draft continued.