It wasn’t the first time that Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel went head to head and it certainly won’t be the last time. That said, unless they decide to race each other in the Tour de France or make the Olympics as decathletes, we won’t see anything like it.
What I’m talking about here, in a very roundabout way, is the NHL combine, certainly one of the weirdest spectacles on the hockey calendar.
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I’ve gone to it for 15 years or so and every time I watch it, I say: “I know why they’re here, but why am I?” For entertainment value, it would rank somewhere behind the average beer-league game and an NHL warm-up.
Fact is, you don’t even know what it is you’re watching. Results of the physical testing aren’t posted or announced at the venue. You only know when the final numbers come out, which they did on Monday.
And when I say “you” I mean “scouts,” given that NHL Central Scouting Services provides results to the teams and their strength and conditioning coaches. The media get to watch most of the stuff, only at a distance. (In fact, the VO2 testing, the most excruciating of tests, was held a day before media were allowed on site.) The public is basically shut out of anything but a few video highlights.
The results are something along the lines of classified info, stored in the NHL’s state-secrets file. Thankfully, for the readers’ edification and posterity, I was able to have conversations with a couple of scouts who had the test results at their fingertips.
More than 100 prospects were invited and the only name player who didn’t show up in Buffalo was goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who tops many scouts’ lists at the position (albeit, in a very soft year for goaltenders). And frankly, I can’t say that Samsonov was wrong. It’s a long way from Magnitogorsk to Western New York if you’re just looking at a couple of pounds of wings and a half hour of suffering.
Scouts I spoke to this week said that, if their teams were standing in the shoes of Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, they would have told McDavid to politely decline to test at the combine. Their advice would have been to the point: Go ahead and take the medical, get measured, pose for pictures and then get fitted for a suit to wear to the draft. The Oilers will take him first overall and what’s there to prove?
Sidney Crosby didn’t do the Wingate or VO2 or anything else too demanding in his trip to the combine back in ’05, but he had an unimpeachable explanation: His Rimouski team was fresh off an appearance in the Memorial Cup final. He would have been testing four or five days after his last game and he had played a lot of hockey. He never said he was dinged up but at that point he had to be.
He never said that he had nothing to prove and no one would have contradicted him.
But McDavid did do the testing. He had about 10 days longer in the break between his last game and the combine than Crosby did. And talking to him fresh off the Erie Otters’ season, he seemed to embrace the preparation for the combine even if it was going to be like cramming for an exam when others had half a semester of getting acclimated the various work stations.
McDavid hit the gym with NHL fitness guru Gary Roberts in the afternoons for not quite a couple of weeks leading up to the event.
Eichel’s season even stretched later than McDavid’s. Erie’s last game was May 15 in Oshawa, while Eichel last laced them up with the U.S. team at the world championships in the Czech Republic on May 17. When you factor in travel and time difference, he had even less time to do combine prep work. That said, Eichel just gives you the sense that he lives for the competition and he has already earned a reputation as a workout warrior—the gold standard in the gym when he was at the USDT and outstripping his older teammates at Boston University this season.
He had to figure that he’d kill the combine testing and that’s exactly what he did.
Here’s a quick look at the sorta-head-to-head numbers.
1. Eichel topped the list on the aerobic endurance test, hanging in for the most painful 12 minutes and 15 seconds of his young life. (A Russian kid, Yakov Trenin, matched Eichel’s time.) McDavid was two minutes shy of that, a few seconds short of the average for the prospects in Buffalo, which was a few seconds short of the average for last year.) Eichel’s VO2 max was a bit above average and fractionally ahead of McDavid’s.
2. In agility and balance testing, Eichel effectively led the field with combined results from the two work stations that measured movement. McDavid was in the top five per cent.
Watch: Gare Joyce's raw video of McDavid and Eichel at NHL Combine
3. In peak power on the Wingate bike testing, McDavid and Eichel were in a virtual tie, just outside the Top 10. That they were coming in less practiced than anybody ahead of them strongly suggests that you’d bump them up into the top five per cent of all prospects on this count—and it would point to a likely source of their exceptional skating abiity.
4. Eichel showed more explosive lower-body strength than anyone in the field if you combine the vertical and horizontal standing jumps: 26 inches in the vertical, just an inch behind second place; 115 inches in the standing broad jump, which was good for fifth overall. McDavid was middle of the pack on both counts, fractionally below average. To tell you the truth, I got the idea that he went through those two tests without a lot of enthusiasm.
5. Eichel managed 16 reps on the bench, tied for fourth overall in the field, while McDavid managed nine, again, in the middle of the pack. Thankfully, there was no pull-up show like Sam Bennett’s oh-for last year. Eichel managed nine strict pull-ups and McDavid six while the average was seven and change.
Some other stuff was sort of interesting—Eichel has freakish grip strength and while players tend to have a dominant hand, he’s good from both sides.
But really, there’s not much more to glean. If you went to the combine looking for the secret to McDavid’s skating ability, keep looking, If you went looking for evidence of McDavid’s desire to be a good citizen working within the system and evidence of Eichel’s raw athletic goods, you found all you needed to know.
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