In prepping for the National Hockey League Entry Draft, the work of Wild Assistant Manager Brent Flahr and the club’s scouting staff is much like that of a spy or a CIA agent. The year is spent scouring the globe for assets (players), gathering info on them and trying to figure out which players they want to go after when draft day comes around.
If the season is used for intelligence gathering, the NHL Scouting Combine acts as an organization’s final opportunity to interrogate and physically test the potential pro prospects.
During the final week of May, 119 of the top prospects from North American and Europe went through rounds of interviews and fitness exams at the Westin Bristol Place and The International Centre at the 21st installment of the Scouting Combine.
On the organizational side of the combine, teams get to conduct 20-minute interviews with players. For the Wild brass, the information gathering process during the year helps them select which players they choose to interview. With the 18th overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on June 27, Minnesota has a number of players it’s interested in.
“Central Scouting puts together their list of 100 to 120 names (of players attending the Combine),” Flahr said. “They send out the list and we can pick a number of kids to interview. This year we interviewed 60 to 65 kids at the combine.”
If the Wild scouts have a good knowledge of a player, they might not bring them into an interview. Same for players who are projected to be taken well before the Wild gets its first pick.
Only 20 minutes in an interview room doesn’t give Flahr’s team much time, so the Wild tailors questions for each player according to the background information the scouting staff has acquired through the year.
“We’re looking for things like their personality,” Flahr said. “We ask them what type of player they think that they are, and sometimes it’s dramatically different from what we see, but at the same time you’re happy they have high aspirations.
“The better interviews are the kids who are just themselves.”
Is it anything like a job interview?
“By the end of the week they probably feel that way because it’s a lot of the same questions, but we try to change things up a little bit and make them more fun for them,” Flahr said. “There are certain questions we want to have answered, but we try to take the monotony away from the process.”
Occasionally, they will have to address red flags, like inconsistent play or an off ice incident. Other times, a player might not be relaxed speaking during the process.
“In some cases it’s not the most comfortable situation for them, but at the same time it’s a big investment for us, so we need to have all the information,” Flahr said. “Some kids are very comfortable speaking, and other might not be, for instance the Europeans, with English as their second language, don’t give the best interview but that’s not necessarily going to impact our list.
“There are some kids that come across really awkward or a different personality that might spook you a little bit, but a lot of those times you already know that coming in with some of the research we’ve done.”
Throughout the season, the Wild scouts talk to players, their families and their coaches. Occasionally, they will go to trainers or radio personalities to find out everything they can about what type of person the player is.
Alongside the interview process, the other major attraction for NHL scouting teams trying to find the next superstar is the physical testing. For this, Minnesota brings along strength and conditioning coach Kirk Olson.
“I want him to look at the physique and athletic ability to, two or three years down the road, be an NHL prospect,” Flahr said.
Prospects mature at different stages, so the Wild looks at upside as much as their current fitness level.
“There are some guys who are Adonis’s, but this means they are physically maxed out, so their upside is limited,” Flahr said.
Some of the tests like the vertical and broad jump are more telling about a prospect’s athletic ability at 17 or 18 than the bench press. They also look at the frame and body type. Flahr gave Jonas Brodin as an example of a player who might not have been as physically mature, but had all the makings, athletically, of an NHL blueliner.
“Obviously, Jonas wasn’t exactly a power house when he came to the combine,” Flahr said. “But we’d seen him play and knew his athletic ability and he’d have a chance to put on weight and get stronger and do what he needed to get to the NHL.”
The physical testing is also a way to look at a player’s compete level. Harder endurance tests like the VO2 testing or the leg power test on the bike can indicate the size of a prospect’s heart and determination, as much as his muscle mass or lung capacity.
Trying to measure desire can be difficult, but important because some players have finished their season earlier than others and have two to three months to train specifically for the individual tests, while others just stopped playing a few days before the combine. The Wild brass takes all scenarios into account at the Combine.
Over the years, there have been minor tweaks to the Combine, mostly in testing, but as players continue to evolve, so does the scouting process.
“It’s smoother and smoother every year,” Flahr said. “Central Scouting does a good job of gathering information, getting us the information we need and then putting together a timeline that works. The process is really efficient, so it’s beneficial for us and the kids.”
The process will continue on Friday, June 27 in Philadelphia, when the Wild and the rest of the NHL will attempt to mine out next jewels of the Draft.