TORONTO – For someone who had just been put through a punishing series of physical tests, Vladimir Tarasenko didn’t look the part.
“We don’t have this in Russia,” Tarasenko said calmly. “We have summer training but not this, nothing like this.”
What Tarasenko was referring to is the NHL Draft Combine, which is the annual event staged a month before the NHL Draft and hosted by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau.
Central Scouting is an NHL agency that ranks draft-eligible players according to their on-ice performance. There is a list for North American born players and a separate list for European players.
Tarasenko played for Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and he is rated No. 2 on the European list.
The 30 NHL teams don’t have to agree with Central Scouting’s ranking but the rankings serve as a guide. Some teams, for example, think Tarasenko is a top-10 pick, and others see him going between 20-25 in the pecking order at the NHL Entry Draft on June 25-26 in Los Angeles.
In preparation for the draft, Central Scouting invited 100 draft-eligible players – 70 North American and 30 European – to an airport hotel for tests, medicals and interviews with the 30 NHL teams.
The Combine represents a level playing field for all 30 teams because the NHL prohibits teams from conducting their own tests and formal interviews until the Combine is over. After that, teams can bring players in for more interviews and tests.
There are three components to the Combine: interviews with teams, medical tests, and physical tests.
The combine begins with the interview process – players have private meet-and-greet sessions lasting 15 minutes with scouts, general managers and psychologists. Some players meet with as many as 22 teams, while others only have a handful of sessions to sit through.
Teams meet with as many as 50 of the 100 prospects attending the combine and use the time to judge a players character and ask questions pertaining to on- and off-ice issues.
Some of the questions are redundant. Every prospect gets asked about his family but every now and then, a team would lob a curveball and then wait to see what the response would be.
“You always pay close attention to these interviews for little bits and pieces here and there,” said Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “Having four picks in the first round-and-a-half, you pay even more attention to it. I thought it was good. We came in with a well-tailored list of questions this year. We got in depth with a lot of guys. It's long. You're there in a small, hot room for a while. It's tiring for us and the kids.”
Tampa Bay Lightning assistant general manager Tom Kurvers sees value in the meetings.
“You just get to meet them and get a feel for the person on an introductory basis so you are not flying completely blind,” he said. “They are young men and they do change and you just want to meet them and get a chance to know them.”
The next phase is the medical tests.
When a player is invited to the Combine, his medical history accompanies him. If the player suffered an injury, doctors will examine him to determine whether the player has recovered or needs more time. That information is then sent to all 30 teams.
The next step is physical tests conducted by a team of exercise physiologists who set up a circuit of tests that measure things like body-fat measurement, grip, strength, stamina, explosiveness, and anaerobic fitness.
There are also two grueling tests on stationary bikes – one that measures short-term muscle power and endurance over 45 seconds, and another lengthier test known as "VO2MAX" that measures the body's ability to deliver oxygen to muscles over a longer period.
The VO2MAX test is particularly harsh as the players had their feet taped to the pedals of a stationary bike, then were told to pedal as furiously as possible for a half-minute, while a computer monitored the decline in their speed over that period.
It is a brutally hard test and it actually has some relevance to ability on the ice. It measures a player’s ability to generate power and how long can he sustain that power. Basically you are asking the player to go as hard as they possibly can for 30 seconds and anyone who has tried this on their own know it is a grueling test.
This is all done in front of an audience that includes NHL scouts and a handful of General Managers, along with strength and conditioning coaches from all 30 NHL clubs. In this age of specialization, the strength and conditioning coaches are looking a little on the psychological side to see how much the player pushed, how he coped.
And if the teams want to make comparisons, Central Scouting has 20 years of testing data available so clubs can see how Tarasenko, for example, measured up against Alexander Ovechkin.
“There are things that show up in the testing when you have your experts look at it,” said Kurvers. “For me to look at the testing or at the results, it is not the same as when you get your experts involved, your strength and conditioning guy.”
Overall, the scouting combine is used to give NHL teams an opportunity to get a closer look at some of the top talent available for the upcoming draft.
While every team has had a chance to have their scouts see all the top prospects, the combine provides teams an up close and personal look at the players.
In the case of the interviews, the teams are provided with a chance to interact with the players one-on-one, something they may not have had a chance to do prior to the combine.
While the combine is obviously only a part of the draft equation for teams, it is an important piece of the puzzle as teams try to make their final decisions on who to pick in the draft.
It is still a necessary part of the draft process, one the NHL has been facilitating for 15 years – first at various sites, then, for the past 10 years, in Toronto.
“This is part of the process,” said Phoenix general manager Don Maloney. “It’s a good way to get a better handle on the players.”