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Cullen: At the 2014 NHL Scouting Combine

Scott Cullen
6/5/2014 4:24:10 PM
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Last weekend, I was at the NHL Scouting Combine, an event which NHL prospects are put through the paces doing exercises and interviewing with teams, though it's debatable how much value is gained through this process.

Here are some observations:

- One of the bigger stories to come out of the event was that Sam Bennett, the Kingston Frontenacs centre considered to be one of the top prospects, couldn't do a pull-up. A little surprising. Most of the guys I watched were around a half dozen, though some did more and, obviously, some did less. To his credit, Bennett didn't appear fazed by his goose-egg. "Games aren't won or lost based on pull-ups," he said afterwards. Also, in The Hockey News Future Watch issue, published months before, a scout was raving about Bennett's strength on the ice, so this probably isn't a reason for concern.

This also goes to a larger question about whether these tests have any relevance for a player's NHL future. If there isn't some correlation with future success as a hockey player, what is the point? They might as well write a paper discussing theoretical physics, macroeconomics or something similarly correlated to hockey-playing success.

This is the part where I annually plead for some kind on-ice testing to be part of the NHL Combine process. Nothing subtitutes for what a player does while competing in their actual sport, but knowing a player's skating speed, for instance, could inform decisions more than how many times they can bench press 150 pounds.

Consider the NFL Combine, for example. There are all kinds of flaws with 40-yard dash as a measure for a player's football ability, not least of all because players rarely run 40 yards on a given play, but it has become a measure that affects a prospect's value. A cornerback who locks down receivers in college isn't going to have the same success in the NFL if he runs a 4.7 40, or a running back who runs a 4.7 40 is going to get caught a whole lot more than a guy who runs a 4.2 and player value is adjusted based on that knowledge. It's not always right (Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden has infamously performed at a high level despite a subpar 40 time), but we're talking about odds and probability.

Even with all the flaws in the 40-yard dash time, the uniformity of the test offers some value to teams because there isn't a circumstance in which a team prefers a slower player (you know, fast guys can always slow down if need be; it doesn't worth the other way).

Former Colts GM Bill Polian, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a couple of years ago, talked about how the Colts, when seeking a new middle linebacker, had set parameters for how quick the player needed to be in order to fulfill the demands that their defensive scheme required. For the Colts, that meant a linebacker that could run a 4.76 40-yard dash. Wouldn't it be worthwhile to know whether that kid who is dominating a lower level of hockey is doing so because he plays at NHL speed?

The long-standing argument against having on-ice testing for NHL prospects as part of the Combine process is that players have their seasons end at different times. A prospect in Minnesota high school might finish in early March, compared to players in the Memorial Cup, which finished in late May. That's obviously a sizeable gap, but I submit that any teenager considered to be an NHL prospect would have access to ice somewhere in order to continue training. It's not like these guys pack up their equipment at the end of the season and bring it out again in September. Those days are long gone.

Moving on...

- There is such a variance in body type from one player to the next, such is the nature of 17-year-olds. Some still look like kids and others might as well be full-grown men (or close to it). One of the latter is top prospect Aaron Ekblad, who goes 6-foot-4, 216 pounds. He carries himself with the confidence of someone who expects to be a top pick and, while he's sure to get stronger as he matures, it's easy enough to see that Ekblad could handle himself on an NHL blueline next season.

One of the challenges scouts face, when it comes to evaluating players with superior physical stature, is trying to determine how much of their relative success in junior is due to playing against smaller, weaker players, something that won't happen nearly as much in the NHL, a proverbial man's league. It's completely fair to have those concerns about Ekblad, but he can play. Ekblad scored 23 goals last season; Ryan Murphy (12th overall to Carolina in 2011) is the only first-round defenceman in the past 10 drafts (2004-2013) to score more goals in his draft year.

- By contrast, Vladimir Tkachev has a tiny frame -- listed at 5-foot-9, 141 pounds -- and surely wouldn't have great physical testing numbers, yet after joining Moncton of the QMJHL late in the year, he put up 17 goals and 39 points in 26 (regular season plus playoff) games. How much should teams care about his physical stature and fitness as an 18-year-old? At past Combines, I recall seeing the likes of Toni Rajala or Mike Reilly, who both looked way too small to be pro hockey players.

Rajala was nearly a point-per-game scorer in the AHL (61 points in 63 regular season plus playoff games) before heading to Sweden this past season, where he scored 30 points in 37 games. Reilly isn't big, but he has grown since and was an All-American as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota last season. Not every player will fill out ideally for pro hockey, but some of them fill out at 19 and 20 instead of 17.

- If Ekblad, as the top defence prospect, looks NHL-ready, the second-ranked defenceman, Haydn Fleury, doesn't look too far behind, physically. He's not as imposing as Ekblad, but Fleury was listed at 6-foot-3, 201 pounds, enough size that it wouldn't necessarily prevent him from playing in the NHL next season. There may be a whole host of other reasons not to play an 18-year-old defenceman, but Fleury has the build of a solid defenceman.

- Headed to Boston College in the fall, Sonny Milano probably drew more attention for his stick and puck tricks than anything else he did at the Combine. He was the second-leading scorer on the U.S. Under-18 Team, witt 39 points in 25 games, behind only 2015 top prospect Jack Eichel.

- One of the most fascinating prospects in this year's draft is Josh Ho-Sang, a very talented forward who played for Windsor in the OHL. Universally, Ho-Sang is described as a talented hockey player -- no one disputes his skill -- but, there's always a "but". In interviews, Ho-Sang is described as engaging and intelligent, an independent thinker.. Uh-oh. NHL teams (and pro sports teams in general) are not known for their acceptance of independent thinkers; they tend to prefer the players that follow the script.

I recall, a couple of years ago, again at the Sloan Conference, former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy talking about how, as a coach, he wasn't seeking well-rounded individuals. He wanted players who were obsessed with basketball. My impression is that NHL teams have similar ideals -- hockey comes first, everything else can be a distant second, third, fourth in the pecking order.

So, there may be some teams that don't want to deal with Ho-Sang and it could cost him spots in the draft as a result, but there will be teams that recognize that the vast majority of 18-year-olds have a lot of growing up to do and they might not want to let Ho-Sang's talent pass just because he talks a different game than others.

A stats note on Ho-Sang: he scored 61 points (23 G, 38 A) at even-strength, tying Nikolaj Ehlers (30 G, 31 A) , not far behind late-birthday prospects Nikolay Goldobin (28 G, 37 A) and Sam Reinhart (22 G, 41 A) for even-strength scoring among first-year draft-eligible CHL forwards.

Another Combine note for Ho-Sang: he's not big (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), but is very fit. He did more pull-ups than any other prospect, rattling off 13, the first 10 or so with easy fluidity. No idea if that makes him a better or worse prospect.

- Leon Draisaitl is a big-bodied (6-foot-2, 204 pounds) that would be easy enough to project into an NHL lineup next season. In addition to having the frame, Draisaitl came across as mature and thoughtful in interviews.

- There is an interesting group of second-generation NHL hopefuls. The most notable of which is Sam Reinhart, whose father Paul played 648 NHL games after he was drafted 12th overall in 1979, and has brothers Griffin Reinhart and Max Reinhart already in the prospect pipeline. That NHL exposure may help explain why Reinhart doesn't appear fazed at all by the attention.

Some others:

Kasperi Kapanen (father Sami played 831 NHL games), William Nylander (father Michael played 920 NHL games), Ryan MacInnis (father Al played 1416 NHL games), Dominic Turgeon (father Pierre played 1294 NHL games), Brendan Lemieux (father Claude played 1215 NHL games), Daniel Audette (father Donald played 735 NHL games), Ryan Donato (father Ted played 796 NHL games), Josh Wesley (father Glen played 1457 NHL games), Ryan Mantha (uncle Moe played 656 NHL games) and Luc Snuggerud (uncle Dave played 265 NHL games).

- Oshawa Generals winger Hunter Smith, nephew of "Motor City Smitty" Brad Smith, is a tall one. He's 6-foot-6 and will need time to fill out, but he emerged as a prospect this year scoring 40 points in 64 games for Oshawa. That's not amazing production, but he had two points in 45 OHL games previously, so it's progress and teams are always intrigued by the big guys.

It's easy to see the appeal of players like Nick Ritchie, Brendan Perlini and Alex Tuch; they have huge frames and while it's one thing to be a refrigerator on skates, it's another to be able to put up numbers like those players and have the size that won't present questions about whether they can handle the physical play at the next level. The challenge for player evaluators is not to overvalue that size.

- While there haven't been any in-depth combine analytics, to my knowledge, going back over past results, there do seem to be some pretty good prospects finishing near the top of the VO2 Max test duration. Last year, the top 10 included the likes of Mirco Mueller, Chris Bigras, Rasmus Ristolainen, Samuel Morin, Bo Horvat, Sean Monahan and Anthony Mantha. The year before, it was Hampus Lindholm, Ryan Murray, Henrik Samuelsson, Tom Wilson and Nail Yakupov. In 2011, Adam Larsson, Brandon Saad, Dougie Hamilton and Jamie Oleksiak were among the leaders.

This year, the leader was Clark Bishop, a centre for Cape Breton, but some other top prospects fit in the Top 10, including Sonny Milano, Sam Reinhart and Hunter Smith.

What does all this mean? Maybe nothing. We don't know because we don't see the Bottom 10 (or all the results) so that we can find out of if there is any real correlation between having a good VO2 Max test and having an NHL career.

Some other notable showings in the Combine exercises:

- William Nylander had the best Anaerobic Fitness, both Peak Power Output and Mean Power Output on the Wingate Cycle Test. Tkachev fared well on the Mean Power Output, perhaps in part because the calculation is based on the participant's weight.

- Robby Fabbri (6.1%) had the lowest body-fat percentage. Sonny Milano and Nikolaj Ehlers were other top prospects in the Top 10.

- Shane Gersich, who plays for the U.S. National Under-18 Team, has springs. He had the best scores in standing long jump and all the vertical jumps, his top vertical jump was 36 inches.

- Alex Peters, a 6-foot-4 defenceman for Plymouth, had the strongest grip strength, in both hands. Aaron Ekblad was among the Top 10 in both too.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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