By John Vogl
The Sabres have spent the week getting to know how the draft hopefuls talk and interact. Buffalo will find out how Saturday much the prospects’ bodies can take.
The NHL Scouting Combine will wrap up in Toronto with the much anticipated and highly dreaded fitness test. Onlookers will cringe and photographers will zoom in as the teenage prospects lift weights, sprint and ride bikes to the point of exhaustion.
The NHL invited 119 players to this year’s Combine, including top-pick possibilities Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl. The prospects will compete against the clock and each other to show who is physically prepared for the rigors of NHL life.
The league’s general managers and scouting heads have been in Toronto all week conducting personal interviews with the players. It was one more chance for the kids to impress the people who have been watching them on the ice this season.
“What I look for in an interview is the maturity level and how far along they are in that area," Sabres Assistant General Manager Kevin Devine told NHL.com. "That usually determines how far away they are from playing in the NHL. But I don't think the interviews are going to jump anyone five or six draft spots, either. They could jump a spot or two if guys are professionals in the interviews, but there won't be any big jump at the top, especially with the top five in this draft class."
The Sabres are set to select second overall when the draft begins June 27 in Philadelphia. Florida holds the first pick after winning the draft lottery, but Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon is shopping the No. 1 choice in hopes of landing a defenseman or two already playing in the NHL.
It should be noted the Sabres’ best depth organizationally is at defense.
“There's no question that if the right deal were to come along Dale would definitely pull the trigger, but it will be a high price because it's the first overall pick,” Scott Luce, the Panthers’ director of scouting, told NHL.com in Toronto. “In the end it all comes down to basic asset management, and Dale said that the pick is available for the right price. So we'll listen to the offers and see if the right price does come along.”
The top spot appears to be a three-player race between Ekblad, a defenseman, and centers Bennett and Reinhart. NHL Central Scouting has Bennett ranked No. 1, followed by Ekblad, Reinhart, Draisaitl and forward Michael Dal Colle.
“I've been asked a lot about myself and what I think of myself, and what I think of the other high-end players in the draft,” Bennett told the league website. “I had a few teams ask me what I thought about their teams and what I know about their teams. I did a little homework before coming to the Combine for that, and I impressed a couple of teams with what I knew about them.”
The players will go through 11 fitness stations Saturday, including three new drills: overhand pull-ups, single-leg squats and an agility test. They’ve replaced pushups, a push-pull station and the seated medicine ball toss. The final events of the hourlong challenge are the Wingate and VO2 max bike tests. The Wingate features players pedaling as fast as they can for 30 seconds, while the VO2 max is an endurance challenge that features plugged noses, oxygen tubes covering mouths, steadily increasing tire resistance and vomit buckets.
The league continues to tweak the Combine, and this year’s major change included input on the invitees. NHL Central Scouting used to control the process, but now teams have a say.
"A two-stage process was adopted,” Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting, told NHL.com. “In the initial stage, the top 75 players on Central Scouting's ‘Players to Watch List’ were invited, and the final stage involved the NHL clubs voting in the remaining 45 players.
“Research has shown over the last decade that an average of 78 invites to the Combine were selected in the top 100 at the NHL Draft.”
The invite list included 18 European players, featuring the top-ranked duo of Finland’s Ville Husso and Sweden’s William Nylander, the son of longtime NHL forward Michael Nylander.
No Buffalo residents are participating in the Combine, but there are three familiar names for Sabres fans. The sons of former Buffalo players Pierre Turgeon and Donald Audette, plus a nephew of Dave Snuggerud, are expected to hear their names called during the two-day, seven-round draft. Defenseman Luc Snuggerud is ranked 42nd by Central Scouting, center Daniel Audette is No. 75 and center Dominic Turgeon is No. 97.
"What the players have to keep in mind is that this will be their initial contact with many NHL teams, so they have the chance to make that good initial impression," Marr told NHL.com. “The Combine gives the NHL teams a chance to get to know the player away from the rink."