BUFFALO - The NHL draft combine has two main components: the physical testing, most of which will happen this Saturday, and the interview portion. The latter is spread out over a few days this week, with all 30 teams interviewing a range of players from the 114 invited by Central Scouting. So what happens in those interviews? I had the good fortune to find out this year, as one franchise let me sit in on a block of interviews. Here's how it went down.
Overall, I saw nine players go through the process. They came from all different leagues and a number of countries. The team had eight staffers in the room, from the GM and director of amateur scouting to assorted scouts and execs. Everyone asked questions at one point or another, though the GM and scouting director steered the meetings.
Different franchises handle this process in myriad ways. Some teams try to intimidate, others do personality tests. This team tried to keep things friendly and the first question the kids were asked was always about their family and background. For the most part, the interviews (which were all about 10-15 minutes) were about getting to know the kid on a personal level; the scouts had seen them in games plenty during the year and that makes up most of the evaluation.
"This is a piece of the puzzle," said the GM.
In some cases, the staffers did want to see how big the kid was - some prospects tend to skate bent over, which can obscure their true frame.
Overall, the atmosphere in the room was dependent on the player. For those who were nervous, the vibe was a little like meeting a girlfriend's father for the first time, but with all the father's buddies there, too. In other cases, it was very loose. Many kids cracked jokes, including one who told the GM that his agent wanted to pass on the message that a certain NHLer on the team needed a new contract. That brought the house down.
The staffers were also very aware of how tough these interviews can be for European players who speak little to no English. It's a positive when the kids try and it was pressed upon them that learning the language would be important once they come over here and it's tougher on the scouts when a translator is needed, for the obvious reason that the communication isn't as straight-forward.
What I found most interesting is that historically, Russian kids had a reputation as being very subdued when interviewed (and hey, I understand that talking with NHL reps in a language you don't know when you're 17 is daunting, I do). Tampa Bay's NIkita Kucherov apparently had his head down most of his interview, while Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov was very reserved too - but both became excellent NHLers and their skills on the ice were apparent at the time, too.
As a member of the media, it was also fascinating to me to hear players talk without as much of a guard up. Several kids admitted that while they planned on playing NCAA hockey, they weren't that interested in school itself - they were hockey players and that was their main priority for attending.
Some of the consistent questions throughout the day included what the player's summer training plans were, if they had any big injuries in their young careers and which NHLer they look up to. They were all asked if they had any questions for the team and several asked about what the team believes the player needs to improve on.
From what I could gather, players can't really flunk these interviews. The meetings were more of a confirmation of how the team had viewed them, or if they weren't too familiar, a rounding out of the scouting report. And players are getting more savvy. The GM recalled the days when kids would come in sweaty and nervous, while today's players are much cooler and in some cases very polished.
Much like their play on the ice, today's teens seem to be more prepared than ever. And I wouldn't be surprised if several of the players I saw end up in the NHL in the next few years.