TORONTO - The NHL's draft combine is a wonderful and chaotic event.
The stars of tomorrow are put through the wringer in a Toronto airport hotel conference room for scouts, GMs and the media and despite, as of now, the official results are only available to the 30 NHL teams, I'll try to shed some light on what was established on Day 1 of the two-day fitness tests (click HERE to see the combine photo gallery).
The players were grouped into heats of eight, with the first two consisting of NCAA-bound skaters. Those kids are only allowed 48 hours at the NHL function due to eligibility requirements, so all their team interviews were conducted yesterday (many for the full day), then they were rolled out bright and early for the fitness tests before boarding planes for Minnesota and beyond at noon.
Since most of these players are playing their first college hockey next season, the contingent was largely high school and Jr. A.
In the first group, Camrose Kodiaks center Joe Colborne was the main attraction. The 6-foot-5 forward didn't look super-fit on the Wingate anaerobic bike test - which pushes riders to hit an all-out speed and then maintain the pace for 30 seconds - and clearly will need some time to put more muscle on his 190-pound frame (In his defense, Colborne has grown about eight inches in two years).
On the infamous VO2 Max bike test - where tension is increased as the pedaling goes on - Colborne needed an official to lead him by the hand once the test was finished. Others, though, showed even more stress. This test lasts much longer than the Wingate and was the heartbreaker of the day.
This is probably the best time to point out the intimidation factor of the VO2 Max. As Colborne was getting warmed up, three others in the group sat on a bench waiting for their turn, looking like they were getting called into the principal's office.
The sheer effort put into the exercise is incredible. A valley formed between Minnesota high schooler Aaron Ness's shoulder blades as he bore down on the bike and more than a few riders kept the pace by violently tossing their bowed heads back and forth as they pedalled.
Later in the day, I'm pretty sure Peterborough Petes star Zach Bogosian even started grunting loudly at one point, but it may have been one of the on-site health officials, who took turns screaming encouragement; Drive! Drive! Everything you've got, everything you've got!
The stars of the early sessions were Americans Jimmy Hayes and Colin Wilson.
Thanks to his elevated pre-draft status, Wilson got a lot more buzz, but for me Hayes wasn't far behind. Wilson is an absolute beast physically and his 22 reps on the bench press (all my bench press numbers are unofficial) were the best I saw all day.
He found an extra gear twice on the VO2 Max and did every station with obvious confidence. If anyone improved their draft ranking today, it was Wilson.
Not to be forgotten, Hayes had a great day, as well. Bound for Boston College, he owned the Vertec vertical jump - where players leap at a series of plastic teeth stacked on top of each other, knocking as many forward as they can.
The teeth were marked into four sections, so in my unofficial ranking, grades are out of four. Kelowna Rockets giant Tyler Myers (6-foot-7) naturally was the best I saw. I was kinda hoping he'd knock over all the teeth, but he came close, getting 3.3.
Hayes, who is nearly 6-foot-5, hit 3.25. He also kept a very low heart rate during the bike exercises and didn't rest as much in between the two as other players, choosing instead to cheer on his buddy Wilson.
Some of the early prospects clearly will need a few years before they have NHL builds.
Wilson looked like he could suit up with the big boys today, while Jr. A grads such as Justin Schultz looked tiny in comparison. Langley Chiefs (BCHL) pivot Derek Grant had a heart rate of 234 during the VO2 Max.
In terms of big-name results, Nikita Filatov of Red Army was the most anticipated of his section. In fact, if you judged on how many people were gathered, you'd conclude watching Filatov do curl-ups was the most entertaining thing in the world to watch.
Filatov did better than some expected on the bench press, lifting the 150 pounds six times. And while he seemed to have a good time with the Vertec jump, his 1.8 was one of the lowest totals scored (Drew Doughty was slightly lower).
The VO2 was Filatov's undoing. Maybe there were some translation issues, but it looked as though he gave up a couple times. At one point, an official braced to catch him, as it looked like he would fall over. When he was finished, Filatov looked as though he had gone 12 rounds with a prizefighter: He wobbled back and forth and really didn't seem to know where he was.
Will this hurt Filatov's draft status? I tend to think not. Filatov is a scorer who has put numbers up against all competition. The key to him and fellow Russian Viktor Tikhonov (grandson of the coach, raised in San Jose) is that both have made it quite clear they want to play in the NHL, not the new Continental League in Russia.
While there were rumblings about other players staying home and taking the big paydays, these two seem to have their minds made up on North America.
In terms of other big names, Steven Stamkos had a very solid testing, though his draft number was never in doubt.
If there was ever a perfect example of how strenuous the testing is, it was this: After completing his test, Stamkos did a mini-press scrum outside the conference room. Now Stamkos is one of the most accommodating players out there; the nicest kid you'll ever meet. But after 10 minutes, he apologized to anyone else who had questions and said, “Sorry, but I gotta sit down, I'm tired.”
As for who will go No. 2 in the draft, most think it will be either Doughty or Bogosian.
If the fitness testing has anything to do with it, Bogosian did all he could to gain ground on Doughty. Bogosian was possessed at the different stops, putting up 18 reps on the bench press and hitting an impressive 3.1 on the Vertec. His intensity on the bike has already been noted.
As for other impressive feats of strength on the day, here are a couple players who caught my eye:
Adam Comrie, Saginaw (OHL), D: Several times in a row I saw a kid doing something impressive and asked myself, “Who's that guy?” It was always Comrie. He had a 2.8 on the Vertec and kept his heart rate very steady on the Wingate (which apparently is a very good thing) at around 178.
Joel Champagne, Chicoutimi (QMJHL), C: Another bench-press monster. Champagne went for 19 reps, the best I counted behind Wilson. Champagne looks huge.
John Carlson, Indiana (USHL), D: The UMass commit was getting some pretty good buzz from teams before the combine and backed it up with 18 bench press reps. He doesn't have the same chiseled physique as some of the others, but he is beefy. He's another guy I can see making the leap to the NHL quickly; he clearly has the mass and force to keep the front of the net clear.
The fitness testing ended with the VO2 Max, but there was a quick cognitive test players did as a cool-down.
It involved sitting down at a computer and looking at images of a man holding a basketball. The players had to push a certain key to indicate whether the ball was in the man's right hand or left, and the man kept flipping directions, sides, etc. The players took the mini-test at home before the combine, then again after to show how mentally trying the fitness portion had been.
Kelowna Rockets center Brandon McMillan had the best explanation of how it went after the workout:
“That was twice as hard, maybe three times as hard as when I did it at home on my deck.
“You're exhausted; mentally exhausted. I'm just trying to get some sugars in me,” he said, hoisting a Gatorade.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his features, The Hot List and Year of the Ram, appear Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
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