Somewhere in your city right now, your favorite NHL team could be putting a dark horse draft prospect through a fitness test, or interviewing them about their family life or what their coaches think of them. While that sounds like something they would have taken care of at the NHL Draft Combine last week, a number of franchises hold their own gatherings in order to drill down even further on their prospective picks. It’s not something they advertise, but it’s not against the rules, either.
From a reporter’s perspective, this year’s draft combine was excellent. The access to the players was fantastic and efficient and the media meal in Buffalo is always on point. But I couldn’t help but notice that the bleachers were only sparsely populated. The pack of NHL scouts and GMs – whom the event is primarily for – seemed thin. I messaged an NHL exec about my suspicion and he confirmed that after all the player interviews (which happen in the days before the physical testing), a lot of folks took off.
Now, the combine has always been a bit of an odd duck: there’s no on-ice component for example, because some players are always coming from the Memorial Cup days prior, while others haven’t played in a competitive game for months. The physical tests have been changed over the years to hew closer to what the NHL teams want to see, but failure to do a chin-up has zero ramifications on a player’s draft stock. But there may be another reason for the early exits: some teams hold their own gatherings.
At least seven NHL franchises invite draft prospects to their cities after the official combine: Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Los Angeles were teams I could confirm. In some cases, these teams are merely scheduling more interviews with players in order to get to know them better. In other cases, it’s a full-blown schedule with medical tests, on-ice workouts and more physical challenges.
From what I can gather, franchises will bring in as many as 30 kids for these meetings and the teams themselves pay for the travel (unless the prospect is NCAA-bound, in which case the player would have to foot the bill themselves to attend). The rosters are a mixture of players who were at the official NHL combine and those who were not.
For the teams, getting access and more information on kids they may want to draft at the end of the month has obvious benefits. For the kids, it’s a chance to make another good impression on a future employer. It’s especially good for quiet kids, who may not have been totally comfortable the first time they spoke to a team in the official draft combine interview period. There is a line to walk, however.
Some player agents have grown weary of this time of year, as they believe it’s too taxing on the kids. Many come home from the world under-18s at the end of April, then find themselves with a bunch of obligations with individual teams before the actual combine in Buffalo. That lasts six days, with different teams often taking the players out for dinner every night (that’s a lot of steak). Then, you have the post-combine gatherings the week after. If there is physical testing with teams, it tends to be after the official combine, while pre-combine, it tends to be meetings.
These interviews seem to be the most important aspect of a team’s homework once the actual hockey games are over and would also square with why franchises aren’t concentrating on the official physical tests in Buffalo as much. From my understanding, these days many GMs will send their team’s fitness gurus to the physical testing at the combine and have them report back on the results.
Getting to know a player off the ice is crucial, however, as you want someone who will fit into your team’s culture once the prospect is ready for the NHL. And if a player comes from Europe, you may not have as much of a book on him as a kid who played junior in North America. Given that, perhaps it’s not surprising that German defenseman Moritz Seider had interviews with all 31 franchises in Buffalo.
A lot of work goes into scouting a player and while the NHL’s combine provides a lot of information and access for its franchises, it’s clear that some teams are always seeking more. Will it pay off on draft day? That’s the million-dollar question.