The NHL Draft Combine produces gems every year. NHL Central Scouting does an amazing job making players accessible not just to teams, but several media outlets, including Sportsnet.
This year was no different, and we were able to meet a number of players on their next step to the NHL. The USNTDP is poised to set a record for first round picks. In all likelihood a player from the program will make his way directly into the NHL for the very first time. The WHL is also set to undergo a resurgence after just two of its players were taken in the first round of the 2018 draft.
Here’s a few takeaways from the week in Buffalo.
Dub Men: While they don’t have the same opportunity to play together as their American counterparts, it’s easy to see the chemistry between players from the same league. That was the case during our sit down with the four top rated players in the WHL. I was able to sit down with Bowen Byram, Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs to discuss all things hockey related. The feature will be edited down to fit into our pre-draft coverage. It’s nice to see the kids outside of their typical hockey environment.
Buffalo the Great: In conjunction with the Sabres, Buffalo has become the perfect place for the Combine. The city is easily accessible from many other US cities and for Canadian teams it’s just a short drive from Toronto. There’s plenty of nice hotels and good restaurants for NHL teams to meet and greet. Players are put up in a hotel adjacent to the Harbor Centre, which is where all the testing takes place and where all the players are made available to the media. A few steps across the street, and players arrive on the suite level at the KeyBank Centre in order to meet with the various NHL teams. The Sabres and the NHL are working on extending the agreement to keep the Combine in Buffalo.
Seider Anyone?: The most gregarious player of anyone I spoke to was Moritz Seider. The big right-shot defenceman was the talk of the Combine for his outgoing personality. Not only was he candid, and funny, but to the point. When asked why a team should take him he responded by saying, “if you want a big right shot defenceman who can skate well, I’m your guy.” Seider was instrumental in helping Mannheim win a DEL title and leading the German National U20 team back into the top group for the 2020 world juniors.
Cauf It Up: How can you not pull for Cole Caufield? The diminutive sniper is the best pure goal-scorer in this draft class. He ended the season with 14 goals in a bronze medal effort at the U18s. Every time I saw him in Buffalo, he had a smile on his face. It’s clear he’s well-liked by his teammates. A telling moment was when he was measured for height and checked-in at over 5-foot-7. Upon learning this, he gave a mini fist pump. Always a smile on this young man’s face.
USNTDP: Every player we spoke with from the program was well-trained, relaxed and candid with their answers. There is some element of media training they go through, but with the team as good as it has been the past two years, its players are used to dealing with the media. No doubt part of the United States’ rise in the game has to do with what USA Hockey is doing at the grass-roots level. Playing in the USNTDP is the carrot every American kid aspires for.
Hughes Number One?: As the player who spent almost the entire year as the projected No. 1 overall pick, Jack Hughes had more than his fair share of media. It was no wonder he bolted quickly after addressing the massive scrum on Friday. He was nice enough to oblige Sportsnet along with teammates Trevor Zegras, Caufield and Alex Turcotte for a 20-minute sit-down, then two days later, gave the rest of our Sportsnet draft team another 15 minutes of his time. Considering he’s spent a good chunk of the past two months in Europe while also having to reconcile the final days of being part of such a special group, I give Hughes all the credit in the world for handling the last week like a true pro.
Late Run of D: At the onset of this draft season, centre was lauded as the position of choice for most of the high-end players. While that still rings true, there’s been a late great run of defencemen. Three of them pop immediately, based on the fact they played in men’s leagues all season. Victor Soderstrom saw top-four minutes with Brynas in the SHL. Seider won DEL Rookie of the Year and Ville Heinola was a stalwart in the Liiga. Add in Bowen Byram, Philip Broberg, Cam York and Thomas Harley, and all of a sudden we’re looking at a very high-end defenceman class. We likely won’t get to the record number 14 d-men taken in 2018, but 10 first round defencemen is not out of the question.
Mystery Men: The two most intriguing first-round projected players are Raphael Lavoie of Halifax and Arthur Kaliyev of Hamilton. Both are supremely gifted and have unique abilities to put the puck in the net. Both have been criticized for their play away from the puck, lack of consistency and periods of indifference. Both were enigmas throughout the interview process. From a personal standpoint, I think both can be effective given the right developmental tools as I believe there’s a lot to unearth.
What’s up Bro?: One of the most impressive interviews over our two days was Philip Broberg. The Swedish defenceman had impressive bookends to his season, jumping on everyone’s radar as the top defenceman at the Hlinka-Gretzky in August. He then battled promotion and demotion issues with AIK, eventually losing his job after returning home from the world juniors. Broberg experienced a great bounce back at the world U18 with six points in seven games, helping his team to a gold medal. He was named the tournament’s top defenceman. Broberg was immaculately dressed, carried himself head held high and had an impressive handshake grip. While those things may seem mundane, first impressions are a thing, and he made an unforgettable first impression.
Global Appeal: Moncton’s Jordan Spence has traveled the path less taken. Born in Sydney, Australia, Spence’s family moved to Osaka, Japan when he was two years old. They spent the next 12 years there, while Jordan learned to play hockey. In order to up his game, the Spence’s moved to P.E.I. where his dad had grown up. Jordan preceeded the family by six months in order not to miss the start of hockey season. Not well-versed in English, he lived with a friend’s family until his family arrived. Not taken in his first year of QMJHL draft eligibility, Spence had a big year with the Summerside Western Capitals before the Moncton Wildcats selected him in the second round of the 2018 ‘Q’ draft. The story will add another chapter when Spence gets selected by an NHL team in a few weeks time.