NHL prospects do it all but dance

Jun 21 2011 - 6:40pm

TORONTO -- Wobbly-legged and pale, Mika Zibanejad emerged from a grand ballroom at the Toronto Congress Centre earlier this month ... with a big smile.

Threw up?

"Yeah, exactly," said the "Persian Prince," a 6-4 Swedish centerman whose mother is Finnish, whose father is Iranian and whose stock is skyrocketing into a potential top-10 pick Friday when the two-day NHL entry draft commences at Xcel Energy Center.

Zinanejad looks to be in terrific shape. Yet every time he does the Wingate cycle ergometer test -- 30 seconds of torture where you're fighting maximum power at maximum speed with a drill sergeant screaming in your face at, well, maximum volume -- Zinanejad finishes with his face inside a garbage bag.

This is the NHL's scouting combine, an annual rite of passage for the most highly touted draft-eligible prospects. They are prodded, poked and dissected by 30 NHL teams and their gray-haired front-office staffs who are searching for the steal of the century or, dare we say, a red flag.

During this particular week in early June, 102 excited draft-eligible players arrived in Toronto to undertake a painstaking interview process and grueling fitness regimen.

In the interviews, each team can talk to as many players as they want in 20-minute intervals. Some teams talk to 80-plus players; some, such as the Minnesota Wild, talk to 50. Some players, such as top-five pick Gabriel Landeskog and one of the top-ranked Minnesotans, Joseph Labate, talk to half the teams, while others, such as Zinanejad, talk to almost all.

They're asked probing questions.

Rocco Grimaldi, the talented 5-6 California native and North Dakota Fighting Sioux, was asked incessantly how he'll survive in the NHL at his size.

"And Rocco came back with authority," said Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr, laughing hysterically. "It was impressive. He's heard it all his life about his size, and he's driven to not use it as a crutch."

They're asked funny questions.

Scott Mayfield, a St. Louis native and giant defenseman for the Denver Pioneers, was asked by one team when he had to return his suit.

Some of the 13 tests designed to evaluate strength, speed and fitness demonstrate hockey performance. Some, like the bench press, don't.

Every who's who is at the combine. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the potential No. 1 pick by Edmonton, was in awe when Hall of Famer and Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman introduced himself. Landeskog couldn't believe he was in an elevator with Hall of Famer Mark Messier, the special assistant to Rangers GM Glen Sather.

All in all, this is an important one-stop shop of the best prospects in the world as teams search for the next Jonathan Toews and Jeff Skinner and try to avoid the next Patrik Stefan and Hugh Jessiman.

Some kids will burst onto the NHL scene next year, some will in a few years and, history shows, some never will.

With pimply, baby-faced, wide-eyed kids walking around the Westin Bristol Place, the combine begins with a shopping spree in the Reebok-CCM Fitting Room.

Locker stalls are outfitted with the gear, skates and sticks used by stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Thornton, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Miller.

The point of the room is to get fitted for sweats and sneakers for the weekend fitness testing, but it's also so players get see exactly what equipment NHL stars use.

"Seeing the videos of Crosby was cool," said Nugent-Hopkins, the Red Deer star many compare to Datsyuk. "If I could emulate anyone, it'd definitely be Crosby."

There were life-size boards of Reebok-CCM clients, like up-and-coming stars John Tavares and Victor Hedman, the first two picks of the 2009 draft. That's when it hit Nugent-Hopkins that in a few years, he could be on one of those boards.

"A few years ago, this whole process I'm going through right now seemed a far way off," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Tavares is only a few years older, so it's pretty cool to connect the dots."

Go to any hockey rink, and it's fairly easy to tell if a player is fast or strong, skilled or has "hockey sense."

But you can have all the talent in the world and flame out because there's something missing upstairs or there are problems away from the rink.

So how do you scout character? That's where the interview process comes in.

"You go there with a grouping of players that you have potentially red flags, whether it's on- or off-ice issues, maybe size or frame or you've heard things," Flahr said. "You can get a look at them and get to know them -- how comfortable they are in their own skin, how mature they are, how smart they are. Is there a character flaw? Do they lack drive?

"We grill them and go after them and either confirm or refute."

It can be a stressful time for athletes, who go from suite to suite to meet with teams.

"Some teams have two or three guys asking you questions like, 'What's the best prank you played on a teammate?'" said Landeskog, Kitchener's Swedish captain. "Some teams have 10 or 12 guys, and walking around shaking everyone's hand is nerve-racking in itself. Some teams try to see what you're made of and try to rattle you."

Every team does things differently. Atlanta, before it moved to Winnipeg, had its clinical psychologist, Ed Freedberg, run the show. Freedberg asked questions about what makes a good teammate, leadership, resilience, distractibility, confidence, openness, all with the goal of trying to find out things like, "how does he lead, if he has a bad game or is in a slump, how does that affect him, if he's criticized, can he bounce back, how does he prepare for games, not physically, but up here?" Freedberg said, pointing to his head.

But Rick Dudley, the Atlanta GM and longtime NHL executive who has accepted a buyout from Winnipeg since the combine, said it's hard to trip up most kids.

"Me, I would have been the worst interview on the planet. I'd have looked at the floor and mumbled the entire interview," said Dudley, a former hard-nosed WHA and NHL forward. "These kids are much brighter, more worldly than we were. They're pretty smooth.

"So you're looking to see how open or guarded a player is, if he says things like, 'The coach didn't like me."'

Labate, who played at Holy Angels and will attend Wisconsin in the fall, said Vancouver asked him to play a video game meant to test timing and decision-making. When they mentioned this, Labate said he laughed until he "realized they were serious."

"I walk in this room. I put these goggles on and all these balls were floating around and I had to pick certain ones," the 6-4 center said. "They said I did above average, so that's good."

Weird, too, but Labate said much better than the six 200- to 300-question psychological tests some teams had him take throughout the year.

"It's nuts, but you've got to do them," Labate said. "To me, it's an honor. How many kids would die to be at the combine? And I get it. These teams are making an investment in you. They want to make sure you're in it for the long haul and not going to flake out halfway through an 80-game season."

At the weekend fitness testing, athletes become guinea pigs. Inside a roped-off pen, scouts, team executives, strength coaches and team doctors scramble for a spot to watch athletes go through the exhausting tests.

"Everybody wants to go there and watch them grind them out and see how much they put into it. I don't put much into it," Dudley said.

Most agree with Dudley.

"Fitness testing is interesting to see and read the results, but it's not the end-all, be-all," Flahr said.

What teams are looking for are certain indicators, like if Player X isn't a great skater, is it a mechanical thing or a physiological problem? If a player is lanky, will he grow into his body?

The most famous Wild example of that is Marco Scandella, the defenseman taken 55th by the Wild in 2008. As former assistant GM Tom Thompson tells it, when Wild orthopedist Joel Boyd examined Scandella at the combine, he told Thompson the kid had the wingspan of a person who is 6 feet 8.

Not coincidentally, few Wild prospects have grown more, both physically and as a player. Some tests, such as the bench press, "are a big waste of time," said Dudley. "What do you think Wayne Gretzky would do on the bench press?"

In some cases, raw numbers are not what teams are after. "The thing I'm looking for is effort and attitude." Wild strength coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner said. "Is he dragging through it or is he trying his hardest? But most of these tests don't tell you a thing about hockey performance."

But teams still consider the combine invaluable.

"Everyone's looking for an angle," said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. "We're all just trying to find a way to break a logjam. We all look at our draft lists and think it's the way everybody views the world.

"That's why you always hear at the draft, 'I can't believe he was there.' Often you have a guy rated much higher than he's selected because you fell in love with him (at the combine). That's the great part of the draft. Thirty teams often leave the draft feeling very good about the players they selected."

Over time though, reality says, there are winners and losers.

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