What to expect from the 2018 NHL scouting combine
Josh Norris was lost. After showcasing elite-level athleticism in the dreaded Wingate test at the 2017 NHL scouting combine, he went for a walk. Unlike many of his fellow draft prospects, his steps did not take him to a nearby garbage can to expel whatever was left in his body after the intense exertion required to complete the test.
“I didn’t get sick. I definitely felt sick. I probably laid on the ground for 15 or 20 minutes after it,” Norris recalls, noting that the Wingate was the test he’d heard the most about coming into the combine.
His memory is a little fuzzy about how he got from the bike to laying on his back in the hallway beneath the bleachers at Buffalo’s HarborCenter. He didn’t pass out, but one of the many athletic trainers on hand had to come collect him after a brief, somewhat nervous search for the missing prospect.
The NHL scouting combine can provide the most physically and mentally exhausting days in a draft prospect’s season. This week, 104 prospects eligible for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft will descend on Buffalo to make their last impressions on scouts and executives from all 31 teams in both physical testing and interviews with individual clubs. Each of the top players eligible for the draft is slated to attend, including consensus No. 1 prospect Rasmus Dahlin who presumably will be making Buffalo his permanent home soon.
Norris was one of the standout performers during the physical testing at last year’s combine, finishing first in five tests and at least in the top 10 in two more. Coming out of that event, it was clear that Norris was one of the best pure athletes in the class. It’s hard to know exactly how much that helped his stock, but as a player thought to be a bubble candidate for the first round, he ended up going 19th overall to the San Jose Sharks.
Date: June 22-23
Host city: Dallas, Texas
“You can definitely help yourself at the combine,” says Judd Brackett, who is the director of amateur scouting for the Vancouver Canucks, noting that the interview portion is the most important part of the week for his club. This week can help further clarify things for a team, especially since many of the general managers will be even more heavily involved in this part of the process.
“As a group, we expect to be doing a lot of interviewing throughout the year anyway,” continues Brackett. “In a way, we want to have [the combine interview] be a continuation of where an [earlier] interview left off in front of everybody so we get a good feel for the character, the make-up, what motivates them, what drives them.”
Brackett says the Canucks, who own the No. 7 overall pick and a pick in every round except the fourth, plan to meet with upwards of 80 prospects over the course of the week. Even if Vancouver doesn’t draft the player, the information gathered in combine interviews could come in handy down the line if it is looking to acquire that same player via trade or free agency.
The interview process can vary for teams, but some rooms will have a good chunk of a team’s amateur scouting staff, the general manager, the assistant GM, other various hockey operations personnel and sometimes even the team president or owner. It’s a pretty intimidating environment made more challenging sometimes by the line of questioning as teams look to find what makes certain players tick.
“I think it is important to come in with specific questions that might be triggers for that player or person,” says Brackett. “Maybe it was something you saw in how they played or a comment that a coach made. You want to be prepared, but a lot of times the conversation will go a direction and you go with it. Is there a pressure point or a question that maybe you want to touch on and see how they react or what their response is? Absolutely, but it could come natural with a pre-plan or the intention of asking that.”
A lot of the questions tend to be centered on a player’s on-ice performance and personality, but they can veer off course. Norris recalled one team asking him if he was a “beer or liquor guy,” noting that was the one question that caught him off guard and made him chuckle a bit during his own interview process.
Norris says he met with 29 or 30 teams at last year’s combine. As a player who was projected to be on the bubble to be a first round pick, he knew this event gave him a chance to separate himself a little bit.
“I knew if I could really do well at the testing part of the combine and leave good impressions and show my personality [in the interviews], I knew that would put me in a better spot in the end,” says Norris.
While it matters to the teams and the players, the physical testing portion certainly isn’t a make-or-break situation for either.
“The guys that do really well, it’s a positive. It shows great athleticism, strength, coordination or advancements in their physical structure,” says Brackett. “Guys that don’t perform well who maybe have less training or were less physically drilled, it’s not a detriment. It could be that they just need more time. As long as they can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and have a plan to address them, I think it’s a positive whether you go and blow away the testing or go and struggle a little bit.”
The combine also has an important medical element with players visiting with doctors. Ten years ago, the scouting combine may have proven life-saving for one attendee.
David Carle was expected to be a mid-round pick in the 2008 NHL draft, but irregularities flagged during his combine physical were followed up on by doctors at Mayo Clinic. It turned out that Carle had hypertropic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that put him at risk of death amid strenuous physical activity. The official word came down the day before the draft. Carle could never play hockey again. The Tampa Bay Lightning selected him in the seventh round anyway, in a bit of a feel-good story, and Carle became interested in coaching. His story just got even better last week when the 28-year-old Carle was named the head coach of the University of Denver hockey team, replacing Jim Montgomery who was just hired to be the Dallas Stars‘ new head coach.
With the interviews and medical testing completed away from the public eye, the physical testing portion remains a point of intrigue for hockey fans, if still somewhat mysterious.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the physical testing events that will be happening in Buffalo this week, along with some new tweaks for this year and examples of the current NHL players who scored best in their draft seasons since 2009. Past combine figures come via topendsports.com.
Standing long jump
This is one of the more straight-forward tests. A player jumps as far as he can from a standing position, with the measurement taken from his heel mark to the jumping line. The best of his three attempts is recorded.
Florida Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson and Buffalo Sabres blueliner Jake McCabe each recorded 119-inch jumps in 2012. Just two years ago, Sabres prospect Brendan Guhle had one of the best jumps ever recorded at 122 inches, which nearly took him off the mat.
This drill is a bit different than the vertical jump that was used in prior combines. This year, players will perform three different jumps straight up and down. According to the NHL, “an AccuPower Dual Force Plate system will be used to objectively measure the direction, strength and timing of the three-dimensional forces that a player produces during hockey related movement.” It will also combine high-speed camera technology to provide immediate results designed to allow teams to assess movement efficiency, physical performance and injury potential.
Players will perform a vertical jump with an arm swing, a second jump with no arm swing and will finish with a jump started from the squat position. Players will do each jump three times.
This is another test that has been tweaked a fair amount over the years and will be revised again this year as the league incorporates more technology into the combine. Instead of going for reps, players will now will lift 50 percent of their bodyweight in three repetitions at maximum velocity. Per the NHL, a “Gym Aware” device will measure a player’s ability to produce power with the results measured in watts/kg.
This is the test that you only really hear about when one of the top guys don’t succeed at it. Sam Bennett, who ended up going third overall to the Calgary Flames in 2014, famously failed to do any pull ups at his combine. That was pretty unfortunate timing for Bennett, as that was the first year pull ups became part of the event. Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres’ top pick in 2017, produced the same result, and even compounded things with only one rep on his bench press test. In the end, this test isn’t going to make or break a prospect, but if you post a zero, it’s going to get noticed and, as each prospect found out, widely publicized.
Among the notables to excel in this test in recent years are New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang and last year’s No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier. Each put up 13 reps in their respective combines in 2014 and 2017.
Aerobic fitness VO2max
The VO2max test has a player on the spin bike for basically as long as he’s able to go. The player is also hooked up to a heart rate monitor and wears a mask to measure the amount of oxygen he is utilizing during maximal exercise. The players have to maintain a minimum RPM over the course of the test or they will be stopped by the instructor.
Several current NHL players have excelled in this one. Among those who performed well when it came to VO2max measurements were Sami Vatanen and Tomas Hertl. Players who managed to go longest among their draft-eligible peers include Adam Larsson, Hampus Lindholm, Mirco Mueller, Chris Bigras and Jack Eichel.
The Wingate is one of the most notorious and feared tests of the combine and well known for its ability to make these elite athletes lose their lunch. It measures power and a player’s fatigue index, but it’s also a test of will. However, it’s getting a little bit of a tweak this year.
In years past, players had to go all out on this test for 30 seconds as resistance increases. This year, players will instead be on the bike for 45 seconds, but will go all out in an initial spurt of 10 seconds, followed by alternating intervals of rest and five seconds of maximum power.
There will continue to be some debate about just how much impact the combine can have, but teams will always take more information over less, while also understanding just how much value to put on certain things.
“The game is changing,” says Brackett. “Good players are still finding ways to play, no matter the height, weight or strength output. If you’re still committed to nutrition and taking care of your body and mind, those are the tools you’re bringing to the office every day, but everyone doesn’t have to be 215 pounds. There’s no recipe for success.”