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NHL Draft Combine Recap

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild

 Though he’s projected to go higher than ninth overall, North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews was likely interviewed by Tom Thompson and his scouting staff.
Tom Thompson was quick to cut to the chase.

Thompson was sitting in a hotel room at the NHL Draft Combine, interviewing one of the four dozen prospects on his shopping list for the June 24 Draft in Vancouver when he asked the player about an incident earlier in this season.

Thompson, the Assistant General Manager/Player Personnel of the Wild, reminded the teenager about how he played a more inspired game shortly after he had knee-on-knee collision in the match in question and Thompson wanted to know why that effort wasn’t there every night.

“He gave me an answer,” said Thompson.

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“That’s what is good about the Combine,” he continued. “You get to meet the kids and talk to them.”

The Scouting Combine is in its 12th year and it is a service teams make much use of. The NHL’s Central Scouting department polled the 30 teams during the season and asked them to list the players the clubs wanted invited to the Draft Combine. The invitations were sent to the prospects and about 110 draft eligible players accepted the chance to be subjected to a series of tests that measured everything from body-fat to grip strength and be available to all the clubs for interviews.

“Your goal is to meet as many of the prospects that we are seriously interested in. You get to have a conversation with them,” says Thompson. “Our people downstairs get to see their bodies and what those look like.”

Thompson was referring to a series of tests that each player is put through in front of an audience that includes scouts, strength coaches, General Managers and Assistant General Managers from every NHL Club.

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.

 Brian Little, who many project as a likely pick for the Wild, was on display at the recent Draft Combine in Toronto.
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.

Each prospect is also put through a series of medical tests and each player’s results from the physical and the battery of grueling tests are made available to the 30 clubs.

As far as Thompson is concerned, the physical tests and interviews are valuable tools in evaluating players for the draft.

The interview where the prospect sits and takes questions from members of the Minnesota scouting staff and management makes for interesting times. A vast majority of the prospects have taken some sort of media training before the Combine and have stock answers ready for the questions.

Thompson listens intently and is always quick with a follow-up question. “It is like examining a witness in court. You cannot go off a check list of questions,” he says.

“It is a very dangerous business if you say a guy is at a certain level as a hockey player but he is a great guy so we are going to move him up (on the Minnesota draft shopping list),” continued Thompson.

The Wild interviewed about 48 players while at the Combine and it’s extremely doubtful the prospect that will be in the cross-hair when the ninth overall pick is made by Minnesota will have not spent time taking questions from Thompson and his hockey bloodhounds.

“I would be disappointed if they didn’t,” said General Manager Doug Risebrough. “My point is if he is at No. 9 and he was here and we did not talk to him that is a problem. If he is not here and we pick him that is not a problem.”

The buzz on the Class of ’06 is there is no player like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby or Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. But there is high-end talent available there for the taking.
The consensus top prospect is defenseman Erik Johnson, who plays for the U.S. Under-18 development team.

Thompson feels there are prospects in every round and not just the top round that will play in the NHL.

“I sound like a promotions guy but I mean it. A year ago, I was really concerned not with the top group but with the depth of the draft. I would say in all honesty, in all the years I have been in scouting, there has been a greater improvement of what I would call the secondary group than I have ever seen. And when we have some of the interviews it is obvious why. There is quality there and for people this is as good a group as any I have come across.”

Risebrough sat in on most of the interviews and he also spent time talking to the scouts, getting a feel for how they view the draft and compare it to previous years.

“For me it is a better understanding of what the challenges are. I think I get a better understanding of the comparisons from year to year. Their job is to find players and some years are better than others,” says Risebrough. “You do not want them to say that but you want to have a better understanding of what years are lean and what years are good because of the potential of trading acquired picks.”

Risebrough took time to talk to the other GMs who attended the Combine, seeing whether there was any interest of moving up or down in the draft or acquiring assets already in the Minnesota organization for players and/or draft picks.

“You get a chance to visit with a lot of hockey people. I do not think I would qualify these as primary conversations as I would secondary conversations,” he says. “Some things need three or four conversations before you can draw a conclusion and this is an opportunity to have a conversation or listen to something that is going on.”

Draft choices are the lifeblood of a franchise and the Wild still have lots of work in preparation for the June 24 draft.

In keeping with tradition, Risebrough and Thompson along with the Wild’s scouts head out on a fishing trip after the Draft Combine.

While there will be the usual campfire banter about the one that got away, the draft and the players the Wild have in their sights will be the main topic of conversation.

“It is like a warm-up. These guys are so revved for the game so that if they really work in the warm-up, they have nothing for the game,” says Risebrough. “So I like to say the fishing trip is basically relaxing and getting ready for the game and it gives Tommy an opportunity to go through with the scouts, one on one, in a more relaxed climate.”

“This is all part of the process.”

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