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Secrets of the NHL Draft Combine

A new study sheds light on the events that really matter, plus the down-low on puking, chin-ups and more.
Draft combine

The NHL Draft Combine returns to Buffalo next week and with it comes the spectacle of around 100 of the best 2022 draft prospects running a battery of physical tests in front of every NHL franchise in the league. The event has been a big one on draft calendars for years. Along with the physical tests, teams also get an opportunity to interview the kids face-to-face and get a sense of who they are as people.

As for the physical tests - which are not on-ice, for the record - these have always been intriguing. How much information can actually be gleaned by bench presses and grueling bike tests? Based on a study from the University of Guelph, some exercises may be a lot more important to watch than others.

Published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, the study found that peak leg power and aerobic capacity were the best predictors of early career success and entry into the league. To get a better sense of their findings, I interviewed lead author Jeremy Cohen and Dr. Jamie Burr, a professor of human kinetics who was on the floor of the combine for years as a physiologist, back when the event was held in Toronto.

"Where we saw the benefit was in the early career models," Cohen said. "The first season in the NHL, three seasons in the NHL and transition time to the NHL."

Cohen and crew devised a metric based on how long a player took to get from the draft podium to the NHL (if a player played all 82 games that first season, they got a score of 0. If they stayed in junior for another two years, their score would have been 164 because they 'missed' that many NHL games during that span). Then they charted their progress at intervals: one season, three seasons, five seasons and 10 seasons in the NHL. Players who didn't meet the thresholds were dropped along the way. No player names were made public in the study, but the data set ran from 1994-2007.

The big find was that players who scored well on the V02 Max bike test and the vertical jump test tended to have more success early in the NHL when it came to points, time on ice and simply arriving in the NHL. Another fascinating find? Players who ended up having longer careers tended to have lower scores on upper-body exercises.

In past years, a big deal was made over the fact that players such as Sam Bennett and Casey Mittelstadt couldn't complete a single chin-up at the combine. But Bennett has already played seven full NHL seasons and Mittelstadt, drafted several years later, is closing in on 200 NHL games.

"I find the inclusion of chin-ups to be odd," Burr said. "It's not a hockey-specific movement - maybe it helps if you're a swimmer - but could I gain information from that? It might tell me about natural athleticism or that they're hitting the gym really hard. You might learn something about them."

Added Cohen: "It's not meaningless, but the focus should be placed more on the aerobic fitness and the lower-body power, because those are the things that will get you into the league. We have to remember, these are 18-year-olds and males are not fully developing until their mid-twenties. So they have a lot of time to fill out their upper body. You need to have the skill and the fitness to make it, otherwise the upper body isn't going to matter."

It does make sense, though. A lot of prospects don't get into a proper gym routine until they head off to the pros or the NCAA, unless they play for the U.S. NTDP - and kids from 'The Program' tend to do really well at the combine. But for the typical teen, the needs in their scouting report often read 'get bigger and stronger.'

"We used to have players take their shirts off right next to the jump station," Burr said. "It was always awkward, but scouts were looking to see if the players were developed. Because if you're good enough to be in that top 100 and you're still skin and bones, then your skill must be quite high. You're doing other things well because you cannot compensate with physical prowess."

Also interesting is the fact the vertical jump test has changed over the years. It is now done on a force plate that measures ground reaction to the player's jump, as opposed to hang time or reach.

"We used to have two jump stations - one on a mat and one where they were hitting rods in the air," Burr said. "Truthfully, those measured the same thing, but the scouts wanted to see it in different ways - some of them thought they could get different information. That was one of the first papers I wrote, actually, saying how ridiculous it was."

Having said that, Burr did find value there in another way.

"What I liked about the Jump and Reach test is that it also seemed to have a component of athletic ability," he said. "Without being too flippant, some of the guys knew how to move their bodies better than others. Some of them couldn't time the jump and reach at the same time and floundered."

And for what it's worth, the Jump and Reach was always one of the more fun tests to watch if you were a member of the press - especially if it was a tall player like Tyler Myers.

As for the aerobic part of the equation, that's covered by one of two nasty bike tests at the combine: The V02 Max.

"Hockey is widely considered an anaerobic sport since the shift lengths are so short - 30 to 45 seconds is considered anaerobic," Cohen said. "And they do test for anaerobic power using the Wingate bike test. But we show that the aerobic fitness seems to be a better predictor, likely due to the repeatability of hockey - you need to recover that anaerobic system between shifts and that requires a strong aerobic base."

As Burr observed during his time on the combine floor, the anaerobic Wingate test would see the players go full-tilt for 30 seconds, straining to go as hard as possible. It wasn't until 10-15 seconds after the test that the kids would start to breathe hard, because that's when their system needed to catch up on oxygen. So the Wingate is almost like playing on the penalty-kill - a mad scramble until you get back to the bench - while the aerobic V02 Max is the ability to recover from that shift so you can go out again and continue performing at a high level.

Of course, I couldn't talk to a combine expert without bringing up everyone's favorite subject: puking. The combine is infamous for seeing kids vomiting into trash cans after some of the harder events (especially the bikes) and NHL execs will half-jokingly say that puking means the effort is there. But in reality, these kids are all top-level athletes and losing your lunch doesn't mean much.

"We can't read into it with this group because they're all fit," Burr said. "The reason people puke is because their pH gets thrown off and their body tries to compensate. When it can't do that through respiratory means, puking is the next step. It probably relates more to nerves or how much Gatorade they drank beforehand."

But effort does go a long way.

"You can learn a lot from watching the guys and the way they dealt with the task they're given," Burr said. "One player in particular was the last to do the combine - all the scouts had started to leave - and he had every reason to give up and not care, but he worked his ass off and he's one of the more successful players in the NHL now. You could see it; it wasn't about the test, it was about his attitude."



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