Every year, the NHL brings together 100 of the top prospects for the coming entry draft and conducts its annual combine, held this year May 27-June 1. All 30 teams converge on Toronto, where draft prospects go through an extensive interview process and some grueling fitness testing. For some players, the combine can have a dramatic effect on where they get selected.
Over the years I have worked for a number of different teams and opinions on the importance of information extracted vary from team to team. Some teams put extra weight on the fitness testing results while others look at the results and measure more the prospect's potential. Some franchises will be asking simple, general questions in interviews and others will have a long, detailed list of specific questions that will speak to the player's character and intelligence.
Similarly, some players have more to prove at the combine than others. Here is a list of players, along with their position in my prospect rankings, that I think will be under the most scrutiny during this process, as well as what teams will be focused on.
No. 4 C Aleksander Barkov, Tappara (FIN)
The biggest question for this big, skilled forward will center on his shoulder injury. Teams will be looking for doctor's reports and assurances that their potential prospect will not be damaged goods. Staffs will get a feel for how well he speaks English and an idea of his contract situation, having played in the SM-Liiga with men for the past two years. His fitness testing may be limited due to the injury, so the physical picture may not be a complete one.
One area of concern over the past two years has been his skating quickness, and if he takes part in the fitness testing his results in the vertical jump and the Wingate bike test will give teams an idea of how much his quickness is capable of improving.
No. 6 LW Valeri Nichushkin, Chelyabinsk (RUS)
Like many -- if not all -- Russian players, questions will be focused on his willingness to come to North America versus a potential career in Russia's KHL. In the past, many top prospects have stayed (the Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov) or returned to the KHL (the Predators' Alexander Radulov) during adverse times, or simply did not have the desire to leave their homeland to prove they could play in the NHL.
Nichushkin recently stated his desire to come to North America next season, but no team will feel entirely comfortable until they can look him in the eye and see him answer pointed questions.
In addition to the transfer questions, teams will inquire about his inconsistent play. In February at the Four Nations tournament he was the best player on the ice, but he hasn't been consistently dominating. Fitness levels are usually not a factor with Russians, but how hard they fight through the grind of the VO2 max bike test has been a point of contention. It may seem like a stereotype, but those are the types of character-driven questions that matter in draft rooms -- regardless of nationality. The test is long (approximately 12 minutes) and measures an athlete's oxygen capabilities while pushing their system to the limit. When players give up early in the test, it can reflect their desire to fight through adversity on the ice. Right or wrong, Russian players have had a stigma of not battling through adversity in the NHL. Teams will watch this test closely.
No. 7 C Sean Monahan, Ottawa (OHL)
No doubt teams will be looking to see the physical potential for this skilled forward. Primarily I see teams grinding him in the interview rooms, asking questions about his junior situation this past season, where his team finished with a record of 16-46-0-6. He suffered from periods of uninspired play on a poor team, which may have turned some NHL teams off from him. Rest assured those concerns will be brought up by any team considering selecting him in the top half of the first round. The question after the combine will be if an NHL team feels it can bring out his talent on a more consistent basis.
No. 10 D Rasmus Ristolainen, TPS Turku (FIN)
Known as one of the grittier prospects in this draft, with the size and style to back it up, many teams will challenge his grit levels in the interview room. He will be asked point-blank if he is prepared to back up his style of play if challenged by another player. Regardless of his willingness to drop the gloves, I think teams will leave the combine knowing this kid has true grit.
No. 12 LW Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL)
This under-your-skin, agitating two-way player is going to get asked a lot of questions as it relates to his situation in Quebec. Rumors ran rampant of his poor conditioning levels and a questionable attitude and commitment. No doubt there was some kind of a rift between him and his teammates/coach. He could turn some teams off if he shows up to the combine in less than desirable shape, or if he answers questions with anything less than a proper answer. Now, I've seen players give terrible interviews and still be selected early. I believe if teams like the player, they are willing to forgive based on potential. But a good interview will certainly increase the pool of interested teams.
No. 14 LW Anthony Mantha, Val d'Or (QMJHL)
Mantha's consistency will be questioned and teams will want to get a feel for where this kid's mind is when it comes to advancing his career. There is little doubt he has tremendous upside with his size and ability to score goals. I see him working through the fitness tests as teams marvel about the prospect of having a 6-foot-4 forward on their reserve list. When scouting him I have seen some tendencies that concern me -- particularly in terms of turning in a full game's effort -- but I chalk that up to immaturity.
No. 19 D Darnell Nurse, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
The guess here is that he will score high on the fitness tests. And even if he doesn't, teams will look at his scores and say the potential is there. He has an athletic family tree (nephew of Donovan McNabb) and teams feel he is only scratching the surface. I think teams will want to get a feel for how he perceives himself and if he is truly willing to be that physical presence playing against men. Some scouts suggest he will be an offensive player, but I have not seen the offensive decision-making when I watched him this year. I have no doubt he can rise to the NHL game, but see him more as a defensive defenseman.
No. 20 D Robert Hagg, Modo (SWE)
My guess is that he comes to the combine, has good results in the fitness testing and teams will want to get an understanding of his character. Blessed with talent and elite skating ability, there are some questions about his motor. My gut tells me he is an intellectual type of person and therefore may think too much on the ice instead of reacting. Teams will want to know his contract situation moving forward and his overall plans to come to North America. I assume he is like most Swedish players in that English is a second or third language, but teams will want to know that communication is not an issue.
No. 26 RW/C Hunter Shinkaruk, Medicine Hat (WHL)
This is a simple interview for me: Questions will revolve around whether he will compete to score goals. Shinkaruk has the numbers to suggest he is a gifted goal scorer (37 in 64 games in 2012-13). He has an elite shot and hockey sense that allows him to produce in juniors, but the lack of grit I see in his game scares me -- hence my lower ranking than most -- and I would want to hear him convince me otherwise. I don't anticipate any issues with his testing, as he will try hard on all the different stations.
No. 30 LW Jason Dickinson, Guelph (OHL)
Dickinson can confuse even the sharpest of scouts on any given night. His coach, former NHL player Scott Walker, insists this skilled forward has to be reined in when it comes to his energy levels. What scares me the most is that I have observed the exact opposite scouting him: I want more enthusiasm out of him shift to shift to convince me he will compete at the higher level. I think interviewing teams will ask him some very tough questions about his passion level.
No. 31 C Frederik Gauthier, Rimouski (QMJHL)
Like his QMJHL counterpart Mantha, teams will be licking their chops at the thought of a big, skilled center in their lineup. Here, too, my ranking is much lower than most and he very well could be selected some 10-15 picks higher. For me it will be more about the answers in the interviews than it will be about the testing results, as you can't teach size and he has plenty of it. I want to be convinced he will play with much more grit and use his elite size when push comes to shove. Some teams may not see it this way, and even if they do, they may roll the dice anyway in hopes that he will figure it out over time.