Every year, about a month before the NHL Draft, roughly one hundred NHL hopefuls come together for the NHL Draft Scouting Combine, an event wherein prospects take various fitness tests and have their results evaluated by, well, everyone.
For the fifth consecutive year, the festivities were held in Buffalo, New York.
Buffalo plays a role in something I have been thinking about a lot over the past few weeks. More specifically, the Buffalo Sabres.
In 2017, a player made headlines at the combine for the wrong reasons. That player was eventual eighth-overall draft pick of the Sabres, center Casey Mittelstadt, who failed to do a single pull-up and was able to bench press 160 pounds just once.
One year later, he is the number one prospect in all of hockey.
So, how much does the NHL Scouting Combine actually matter? Do off-ice fitness tests really indicate how good a late teen will be over the next decade? If so, what are the most indicative combine tests?
The Best and Worst at the Combine
In 2013, a trio of defensemen stood out at the combine - Mirco Mueller, Chris Bigras, and Steve Santini. All three players ended up getting picked in the top-42 (Mueller the top player at 18th overall) after so-so years in junior/college.
Did the combine play a role in those cases? Maybe.
Mueller is the most shocking of the three players listed above. A San Jose first round pick, he was taken ahead of Shea Theodore, a fellow WHL product who outperformed the Swiss defenseman by leaps and bounds during the 2012-13 season but had a less-than-stellar combine, finishing in the top-ten of just one test (Wingate power output). Mueller, meanwhile, finished in the top-ten of five tests.
Five years later, Theodore has skated in 114 NHL games to the tune of 46 points. He also netted ten points in 20 playoff games for the Vegas Golden Knights in their surprising Stanley Cup Final run. Mueller, Bigras and Santini have skated in a combined 203 NHL games with 31 points.
Samuel Morin might be the most interesting player here. His 2012-13 season consisted of 16 points in 46 games in the QMJHL. Those numbers alone don’t offer a lot of promise for an NHL hopeful, much less as a fringe top-ten pick. But, alas, that’s where the Philadelphia Flyers picked him - 11th overall.
He, too, had a good combine. The thought on him was that he was a very raw prospect with great natural athleticism, and the combine supported that as he had a good showing in his testing. Five years later, though, he has played the fewest NHL games out of any defenseman drafted in those first 46 picks.
The first player I wanted to look at in the 2014 draft was Leon Draisaitl, the German-born forward who went third to the Edmonton Oilers and has since established himself as, debatably, the best all-around player in the top-20 of that draft.
He finished with one of the best right-hand grip strength results, but outside of that, nothing too notable from his combine.
Eventual Washington fifth-round draft pick Shane Gersich was the star of that combine, maybe a true “combine warrior” in that he stood out in nearly ten different tests. He has since played in five NHL games (two in the playoffs) for the Caps and has just one point. The jury is still out on him, though, but he didn’t have a remarkably special collegiate career (one which ended in 2018 after 117 games and 77 points) and probably has a 50/50 shot of starting next season with the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
Top-three picks Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett all had forgettable combine results. Bennett, in particular, stood out in a bad way as he, like Mittelstadt in 2017, failed to do a pull-up. 2014 was the first year that the pull-up test was implemented.
Now onto the 2015 draft, aka “The McDavid Draft”. While CMD owned the draft, he didn’t own the combine. That went to second-overall pick Jack Eichel, who finished in the top-ten of seven different tests.
The next three picks, Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Noah Hanifin, all had okay performances, but all three paled in the comparison to Eichel. Another player that tested well was Jesse Gabriel, a fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins who had a decent WHL career and is set to go pro on a full-time basis this upcoming season. Only time will tell if he can translate his physical talents to an NHL career of any kind.
A year later, a couple of players had particularly good combines - Logan Stanley and Julien Gauthier.
Stanley and Gauthier were both first round picks of the Jets and Hurricanes, respectively. Stanley is a massive player, which undoubtedly boosted his draft stock. The 6’7” blueliner had a solid, but unspectacular, junior career in the OHL. His fourth season was, far and away, his best as he put up 42 points in 61 regular season games to go with his 16 points in 19 playoff games. He is still a project as a player, but the consensus was and still is that he was taken a bit too early as he had a draft ranking closer to that of a fringe first-rounder. He will turn pro in 2018-19.
Carolina’s own Julien Gauthier is a physical specimen, entering the draft with plus size and coming from a blood line of body builders.
Since getting drafted, his stock has lowered, and his iffy rookie season in the AHL didn’t help much. There are those who think he will still be an effective NHL goal scorer, but he will have to have some better numbers in the AHL before that happens.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Clayton Keller (seventh-overall to the Arizona Coyotes) finished in the top-ten of just one category - pull-ups. Despite having an unimpressive combine, Keller took the league by storm for much of his 2017-18 rookie season, tallying 65 points in a full-82 game slate for the ‘Yotes. He’s a budding star and should only continue to improve as he enters his early-20’s.
We have finally reached the 2017 Draft Combine which, as I outlined in the opening, was dominated by Mittelstadt’s rough go of things. Despite that, he is still the best NHL prospect entering the 2018 draft.
Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick both had just one top-ten finish in the tests (both in the pull-up test), but they both cracked NHL rosters in 2017-18 and had varying degrees of success on playoff teams.
San Jose first-round pick Joshua Norris (no relation to Chuck) had an outstanding combine, finishing first in five tests and top-ten in eight tests. The 19th-overall pick had an average rookie season at the University of Michigan but was drafted well above where most scouting reports had him (as high as 23 and as low as 67).
Dayton Rasmussen had the best combine of the draft-eligible goalies but went undrafted. He will re-enter the draft this month.
Liam Foudy’s name was a standout in the 2018 Combine, as he did very well in the leg tests (jumps, bikes, etc.). He is projected to go somewhere in the second round, perhaps sneaking into the first round, of the 2018 Draft.
Top prospects Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov both saw their names appear a couple of times in the top-ten results lists, but neither of them stole the show.
Based on just results, the combine has little to no bearing on how successful a player will be in the NHL or elsewhere.
Some ultra-strong players (Stanley, Gersich, etc.) are just that - really strong. None of them have experienced any kind of NHL success yet. That’s not to say they never will, but their strong combine test results haven’t directly translated to NHL-level hockey.
The opposite is true, as well. Players who have bad combines (Mittelstadt, Bennett, etc.) have gone on to be just fine. In Mittelstadt’s case, he’s an elite prospect, and in Bennett’s case, he has turned into a fine NHL player with a good future.
Above all else, the value I see in the combine is watching players’ determination. Which players push as hard as they can to get one more rep (or just one rep, in Mittelstadt’s case). Additionally, the interviews held in Buffalo with players are ultra valuable to teams as they can get a good chance to evaluate a player’s psyche.
But, again, the results really don’t mean much. In most cases, players who do a lot of pull-ups or ride a bike until they pass out don’t better their odds of being NHL players one day. Does it help to be in really good shape? Of course, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything. Having “NHL-ready size” doesn’t mean you’re ready to play in the NHL, which kind of applies to Carolina’s Julien Gauthier.
Especially early in the draft, the combine shouldn’t act as a big factor for teams as the players’ cumulative on-ice work should be the determining factor. Later in the draft, though; perhaps good combine showings can help differentiate some players who are, otherwise, very similar.
Honestly, I’m not quite sure why all of these combine tests are off-ice. It feels like there should at least be a few, if not many, on-ice drills that test skating speed, agility, puck skills, shooting, etc. Perhaps that will come in due time, but it probably should have already been a part of the combine for some time now.
So, the next time you see someone have an amazing combine, don’t overrate them because of it, and the next time a Casey Mittelstadt comes through and can’t do a pull-up, don’t rule them out. They might just end up being the next big star to hit the NHL.