Combine Takeaways: Eichel will be a Buffalo icon

Hugh Burrill reports from Buffalo where Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel talk about the pressures of combine testing in just another step on their way to the NHL.

BUFFALO — If you stand in the right place at the NHL Scouting Combine and have good eyesight, you can do something that otherwise proves quite tricky: find out how big an NHL prospect is for real.

That’s because, before they got to huffing and jumping, the first thing the 105 hopefuls had to do at the fitness testing portion of the event — held on Saturday in Buffalo — was stand completely still and let somebody measure precisely how tall they are and how much they weigh.

The results were then displayed on a screen no bigger than your average man-cave television, however the numbers could still be spotted from afar in the media zone by anybody who made a real point of finding out.

Sure, that’s not the most earth-shattering information in the world, but it’s kind of cool to know the truth about a player’s dimensions rather than citing other notoriously unreliable information that leads to us to always emphasize the fact a guy is “listed” as six feet tall.

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It’s hard to take strong exception to anyone who says the combine — with its standing long jump and pull-up stations — reveals nothing about a teenager’s actual hockey acumen. To our knowledge, the Stanley Cup won’t be settled this spring based on who belts out the most bench presses. That said, in a playoff season where Duncan Keith’s V02 max is being celebrated, let’s at least entertain the possibility we can learn something about these 2015 draft hopefuls based on how they maneuvered through a day and week in which they were both mentally and physically prodded.

Here, then, are three combine takeaways from a person who hopes you take these for what they are — fun little crumbs to contemplate.

Eichel will be a Buffalo icon

The biggest achievement of Connor McDavid’s career might be making Jack Eichel look like a consolation prize. If the Massachusetts native were in any draft other than the Mc2015 version, we’d be talking about how long-suffering Buffalo fans were finally getting their savior. Eichel has an ease about him, the way the most natural of athletes — oh, what the heck, let’s use comparisons like Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur — do.

A lot of kids look like they’re trying to melt steel with their eyes before performing one of the fitness tests, Eichel just sort of saunters up to a line, then throws down a jump or rips off a series of pull-ups that — even without exact measurements or greater context — make an impression on any observer.

And even in an age where these youngsters are more and more equipped to handle hoards of media, Eichel seems especially unbothered by the whole scene. There was huge demand on the kid’s time at this Western New York event, it being a slam dunk and all that Eichel will be drafted second overall by the Sabres in a few weeks. He responded by serenely answering question after question — even cracking a few jokes — before taking his leave.

Sabres fans, I think this is all going to work out just fine.

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Lawson Crouse does not lack for confidence

Too often, we confuse athletes who talk a lot for athletes with a lot to say. Lawson Crouse isn’t verbose — his answers tend to be pretty tight, usually lasting no more than a couple sentences. But just like his game, those sentences pack some punch.

For instance, Crouse was very matter-of-fact when asked if there was any NHL player he patterned his game after.

“I like to play like a more skilled [Milan] Lucic. I do have that ability to play strong, play mean, play tough, but given the opportunity I can bury the puck like Rick Nash.”

So there.

For those wondering, this in no way came off as an artificially inflated statement aimed to pump one’s own tires. It simply sounded like a big, direct person explaining he expects to play a game similar to what Cam Neely was exhibiting about five years before Crouse was born in 1997.

Centres and defencemen might be the most valuable NHL players, but, really, there are great pivots and blueliners available every single year. Crouse may be a winger, but how often does a guy with this potential blend of bash and finish come around?

And, if nothing else, we know the kid believes in himself.

The combine matters, at least to the guys beading sweat

Noah Hanifin, the highly-rated defenceman from Boston College, was gripping both ends of a white towel strung around his neck while answering questions about the entire experience he’d been through in the past few days. It was almost as if he didn’t want to let go of the penultimate event in an undrafted prospect’s life. All that’s left now is the draft itself, and Hanifin had the perspective to know this is a year that, in many ways, will be unlike any other he’ll live.

Of course, he had a little help coming to that realization thanks to the advice of another guy who knows something about playing defence: his agent, Bobby Orr. The two had lunch a few weeks ago and Orr’s biggest tip for Hanifin — who, like many of the young athletes at the combine, was understandably preoccupied with making a good impression this week — was to try and soak it all in.

“That was another reminder, just enjoy it,” Hanifin said of his conversation with Orr. “You work really hard and you don’t want to ever miss out and just blow by stuff. You want to enjoy the process because you only go through something like this once in your life.”

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