NHL scouting combine wraps with physical testing as Jack Hughes sits

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Bowen Byram voiced what every prospect at the NHL’s scouting combine was thinking going into the event’s final day.

Ranked as the No. 2 North American skater ahead of June’s draft, was the Vancouver Giants defenceman looking forward to the final step in the process — the physical testing?

"Ya," the 17-year-old from Cranbrook, B.C., said with a smile. "Looking forward to getting it out of the way."

Saturday marked the conclusion of a week that sees NHL teams interview, poke and prod 103 of hockey’s top draft-eligible players.

There are meetings, dinners and off-the-wall questions, but wrapping up with a series of physical tests, including the intimidating VO2max, looms large. Also known as the "Wingate Test," players mount an exercise bike and slip masks over their noses and mouths before pedalling like crazy to measure cardio-respritory fitness.

It’s often left elite-level athletes exhausted. Some have wound up vomiting in the past after pushing themselves to the limit.

"It’s tough," U.S. National Team Development Program goalie Spencer Knight said. "You come out of the gate hot and give it all you’ve got. You start feeling it.

"You’re like, ‘Oh wow."’

The third-ranked North American skater heading into the draft in Vancouver, Dylan Cozens was glad to see that bike in his rear-view mirror.

"It’s something lots of guys have been dreading," said the 18-year-old centre from Whitehorse. "It’s nice to get that out of the way."

Jack Hughes, projected to go either No. 1 or No. 2 later this month on the Rogers Arena draft floor, sat out Saturday’s tests following a long, physically taxing season. He was worried about getting injured, adding that taking part would be like going into an exam without studying.

His main rival for the top selection, winger Kaapo Kakko, didn’t show up to Buffalo at all after helping Finland win three gold medals at various international tournaments in 2019 — including the recent men’s world championship — but Hughes said it was important for him to attend, even if it was just to chat with teams.

"The combine’s a big thing," said the 18-year-old centre with the USNTDP. "I kind of owed it to be here. It’s a big event that helps a lot of people out.

"It was good to get to know a few teams and kind of let the teams pick my brain a little bit."

That last point is important.

Not only do clubs interview players they’re interested in drafting, general managers are also looking for any shred of intel they can gather.

In the case of Hughes, organizations other than the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers — owners of the first two picks, respectively — were likely more interested to learn the Orlando, Fla., native’s take on his USNTDP teammates than the answers to questions about himself.

Including Hughes, six of the top-12 North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s final list are part of the U.S. under-18 program, while Knight sits as the top-rated goalie on the continent.

"Getting to know the players and their personalities and what makes them tick is important," said Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning, who owns the 10th pick at the draft. "It’s part of the whole process of drafting well."

And every little bit of information helps.

"The interview process does have an impact. It has to," said newly-hired Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland, whose team is slated to select eighth overall on June 21. "Maybe on one hand you like somebody and after the interview you feel better. You like him as a player and now as a person.

"And then maybe there’s a player that you like and the interview didn’t go well."

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, who doesn’t have a pick until No. 53, said talking to players that will be long gone when he’s scheduled to step to the podium late in the second round still holds plenty of weight.

"We’re spending more of our own private time with some of the higher-end guys just to do our due diligence," Dubas said. "(We’re) using this to try to drill down deeper on some of the players who could be there when we pick."

Teams throw a number of questions at the prospects.

"It’s a little crazy how you tell the same story," said Hughes, who spent a large chunk of his childhood growing up in Toronto when his father worked for the Leafs. "You kind of have to refocus in every meeting."

Some queries are straight forward, while others are the exact opposite.

"There’s ones that catch you off guard," Knight said. "One question that had me wondering, and I still think about it, was, ‘Do you like to stop pucks or prevent goals?’ I like stopping pucks, but I think the whole point of goaltending is to prevent goals.

"I’m still going back and forth."

Byram, who turns 18 in two weeks, said the questions fired his way were fairly straight-forward.

And the dreaded Windgate Test went off without a hitch.

"It’s something you’ve got to do," he said. "Once it’s over, it’s nice.

"It wasn’t as bad as I expected."


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