The physical portion of the week gets the most camera time, but effort is often much more important than results in the minds of talent evaluators. Still, a new event added this year was probably the most illuminating.
For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the NHL’s annual draft combine, it is important to remember that the whole thing is a bit of a dog-and-pony show. Sure, the interviews with teams are important and it is in the best interest of the player to give it his all in the physical tests, but as we saw in this year’s playoffs, the ability to do chin-ups as a 17-year-old may not be the best indicator of NHL potential.
So where do we look for value in this weekend’s results?
Actually, it was a brand-new event that is worth looking at the most. In past years, the Vertec jump was one of the most popular with both players and the media. After all, it’s really fun to watch the kids jump into the air and smack a bunch of wind-chimes, as my friend Sunaya Sapurji put it.
But as one fitness expert that I spoke with noted, the Vertec rewarded long arms as much as it did leg power. So this year, the NHL brought in the Kistler Force Plate System, which looked much less impressive, but made up for it in relevance.
By measuring the ground force a player generated by leaping into the air, the Force Plate could objectively divine hockey-related movement that would indicate levels of physical performance, injury potential and efficiency (I cribbed this from the official description provided by the NHL).
So who came out on top? Good skaters, of course.
Austin Wagner, a left winger with WHL Regina, had the top result, followed by Seattle’s Ryan Gropp. Wagner is one of those players that scouts have to stop themselves from talking about since they want him as a dark horse pick for their own team. At 6-foot-2, he has a great frame and the skating prowess forces defenders to back off when he has the puck, creating space for his linemates.
Jack Eichel ranked fifth and based on his powerful skating game, that should be no surprise. Former Team USA mate Colin White, a Patrice Bergeron-type two-way center, also cracked the top-10 and I’ve seen him put pressure on puck carriers thanks to his speed.
Slick-skating defensemen such as Saint John’s Thomas Chabot and Prince Albert’s Brendan Guhle also made the list, but perhaps the most intriguing name was Barrie Colts goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.
Blackwood finished third overall and these combines aren’t necessarily geared towards netminders. But if you think about it, Blackwood’s explosiveness would serve him well when pushing off from side-to-side in the crease. And with his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, he’s already covering a lot of net.
The most gruelling tests at the combine are the two bike challenges. This year, the V02 Max test was held on the Friday, while the Wingate – and most other tests – were held on the Saturday. The logic was that in past years, kids had done the bikes back-to-back, killing themselves in the fast Wingate and leaving themselves gassed for the longer V02 Max. Breaking the tests up would give a more accurate read.
Since the V02 Max measures aerobic capacity, it’s a good indicator of how well an athlete will perform when facing high-intensity situations with minimal recovery time – like, shifts in a hockey game, for example.
Right at the top this year was a pair of defensemen: Peterborough’s Matthew Spencer and Team USA’s Nick Boka, a Michigan commit. Spencer had a big role on the Petes this year, so that explains why he had to be in tip-top shape, while Boka was known among his NTDP teammates as a serious gym rat.
As for the Wingate bike, which measures anaerobic fitness (short-term vs. aerobic’s long-term), there were three different outputs: fatigue index, peak power output and mean power output. Some of the common names in the top 10 included Wagner, Guhle and Gropp, as well as Kamloops’ Deven Sideroff and Culver Prep’s Karch Bachman.
The best in the fatigue index was Regina’s Jesse Gabrielle and he was joined by skill players such as London’s Mitch Marner, Waterloo’s Thomas Novak and Michigan’s Zach Werenski.
The final exercise I find intriguing is the wingspan, since goalies tend to do well. This year’s winner was Kladno’s Daniel Vladar, followed by Quebec’s Callum Booth. A couple of defensive defensemen did well too – Tri City’s Brandon Carlo and Kosice’s Erik Cernak, for example.
And while Shawinigan’s Dennis Yan won the pull-up competition with 14 reps, I don’t recall hearing about anyone getting held off the board this year…