BUFFALO - For Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the draft combine is a mere formality. Sure, they want to make a good impression – McDavid even said his goal was “not to embarrass” himself (spoiler alert: he didn't) in the physical testing – but at the end of the day they're going 1-2 in Florida later this month.
But the combine can be very important for some of the other prospects; players who aren't blessed with franchise-altering skills. The interview process, which most of the combine week is dedicated to, gives kids with question marks in their games a chance to tell their side of the story one more time. And since two of last year's most controversial players – Anthony DeAngelo and Josh Ho-Sang – ended up going in the first round – setting the record straight can clearly pay off.
“That's why you have the interviews,” said Arizona Coyotes GM Don Maloney. “If there are rumblings, rumors, teammates, on-ice situations, off-ice, usage, sitting out, coaching – it will all come out in the interviews. Just to get clarity.”
Portland's Paul Bittner, for example, has been knocked for inconsistency and heard a lot about it during his interviews. Playing on a Winterhawks super-line with Winnipeg prospect Nic Petan and Columbus pick, the affable power forward admitted that some nights he felt like he didn't need to do much in order for his team to win, but now sees that at the pro level that won't fly.
Another WHLer, Regina's Jesse Gabrielle, likes to play the game with an edge. And while that's all well and good, some scouts believe he's too focused on the rough stuff. Hence the importance of this week.
“There were concerns about my personality and character,” Gabrielle said. “I wanted to show them that I am a character guy off the ice. The way that I play kinda brings up questions, maybe some discipline problems and a concern that how I play on ice reflects off-ice. But I made sure to re-assure them that's not the case whatsoever.”
Gabrielle interviewed with six teams in Buffalo, so interest in him at this point is niche. It only takes one team to believe in him, however, and there is definitely the possibility that another franchise that chose not to speak with him at the combine will step up at the actual draft.
“I think there's more player there, but you don't know if there's more player there right now,” said another GM. “We've got time for him, it's just a question of where. He's a gritty guy and you love those other things, but at the end of the day, you still have to be able to play the game.”
Gifted winger Jeremy Bracco of the U.S. National Team Development Program is another interesting case. A little undersized, his stock dipped this season even after setting an NTDP record for assists. Scouts I talked to didn't like the way Bracco reacted to being cut from Team USA's world junior squad and the Boston College commit ended up hearing about it in his combine interviews.
“I obviously thought I should have been on that team,” Bracco said. “I thought I brought intangibles that others on the roster didn't have. It was definitely disappointing, but I learned a lot. A lot of teams brought it up. For the first four or five games after I didn't play as well as I should have; I was really focused on it. So I kinda hurt my team that way, but it was a learning experience and I have to deal with adversity better.”
Luckily for Bracco, there's no question about the offensive arsenal he would bring to a team. And the fact that these kids are just at beginnings of their careers tends to get them some slack for minor missteps.
“You have to remember, these are 17-year-old kids,” said the anonymous GM. “For us, it's for sure something to pay attention to, but you have to put it in the proper context. As they grow and mature, is that part of their DNA in regards to adversity? Is it 'I'll show you,' or head down, 'woe is me?' ”
These are the questions franchises must answer for themselves as the draft nears at the end of the month. Because once those players are picked up or passed on, history has been made for better or worse.