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Draft combine: physical tests put kids on a mission

The best and brightest for 2017 are not finished products. At the combine in Buffalo, they got a heads-up on how they can take their games to the next level

BUFFALO ­– There’s certainly an air of spectacle to the draft combine each year. While it’s amusing to parse the final results, it’s always worth remembering that the on-ice performance of a player is more important than how many reps they can do on a bench press or how many pull-ups they finish with. But that’s not to say that the routine is useless. For many of the players in attendance, the draft combine offers a baseline of what they need to do physically in order to get to the next level.

“These guys in the NHL are really big and really thick,” said Charlottetown defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph. “So the summer is really important to get bigger and stronger.”

Joseph, the younger brother of Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mathieu Joseph, is a very intriguing blueliner thanks to his high hockey IQ and mobility. He lost a lot of battles this past season because he only weighed 160 pounds, but the effort was there and he certainly has time to bulk up. Another defenseman in that mould is Ian Mitchell, who played for the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Jr. A League this year. Mitchell is committed to Denver and in many of his interviews with NHL teams, the scouts agreed that going to the NCAA is the right choice for him, as he can take advantage of the weight room time the college route affords a player.

Finding a balance for the still-slight puckmover is going to be the mission.

“I don’t want to get too bulky, because my skating is what makes me a player recognized at this level,” Mitchell said. “For me, it’s getting more explosive with my upper body so I can battle guys a bit harder in the corners and in front of the net.”

A new wrinkle this year was that along with the most recent results, players could also see a running leaderboard of who did the best in every event. Not only is that great for us media types, but it gives the kids a sense of where they are versus their peers.

“You look at the leaderboard and see where you stack up against other guys,” Mitchell said. “The stuff you do well, it’s a pat-yourself-on-the-back kinda thing, and the some of the things you don’t do as well on, you have to work on in the summer.”

Even goaltenders are on watch. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is one of the top talents available in 2017 and may even be the first netminder off the board (Jake Oettinger is another option for that benchmark). Standing at 6-foot-4, Luukkonen definitely has an NHL frame, but scouts have been watching his athleticism all year. At his interviews, he identified that as a weakness when speaking with NHL teams and the physical tests today furthered his mission.

“You can compare to the other guys and I saw that I should be in better shape and have more power and strength in my body,” Luukkonen said. “That’s something to work on. I told teams that’s not my strong spot. I know what I have to do: train more and train harder.”

But being blessed with size can often give players a leg up on the competition. Ostap Safin is one of the top Czech prospects this season and at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds already, it’s no surprise he was able to play against men as a member of Sparta Prague this past season. He knows he can get stronger, but his big frame gave a lot of NHL teams a positive mindset when they saw him.

“Yeah, all of my meetings, teams were like ‘oh, big guy, big guy,’ ” Safin said. “Teams like big guys, sure.”

But in the end, commitment may be the most important aspect of a player’s makeup. Every kid has parts of the game they need to improve on, but the drive to get there matters to teams. That comes out in the interview process.

“We get into issues they may have at the current time,” said Bill Armstrong, director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues. “Sometimes you’re challenging them, because there’s a really good base of a hockey player underneath there and they need to chisel away at it. You want to have that conversation with them.”

The draft is coming up quickly, but the work has really just begun.



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