No pull-ups, no problem for prospect Bennett

Sam Bennett (Aaron Bell/OHL)

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Sam Bennett isn’t accustomed to being last in anything.

First among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final 2014 draft rankings, the Kingston Frontenacs centre finished dead-last in one category during Saturday’s fitness testing at the annual combine. Bennett couldn’t do a single pull-up.

"I was definitely disappointed with myself," Bennett said. "I was wanting to do the best I can in every test. But, I guess, ultimately games aren’t won or lost if you can do a pull-up in the gym."

Bennett likely won’t take much of a hit from being 12 pull-ups behind the leaders. If anything, his showing could help whichever team takes him early in the first round June 27 in Philadelphia.

"The fact that he can play the game the way he plays the game, I think the teams feel that he’s a pretty complete package," NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said. "This is what the whole combine’s about: The team that’s going to get Sam Bennett knows what work lies ahead and they’ll be able to put him on the proper path for development."

Bennett finished ahead of Barrie defenceman Aaron Ekblad, Kootenay centre Sam Reinhart and two other potential top picks, Prince Albert winger Leon Draisaitl and Oshawa winger Michael Dal Colle because of what he developed into on the ice.

With his father’s favourite player, Doug Gilmour, overseeing his progress as Kingston’s general manager, the Holland Landing, Ont., native had 36 goals and 55 assists in 57 OHL games this past season.

But just like with pull-ups, Bennett doesn’t want to be defined by numbers alone.

"I think (what sets me apart) really just a combination of my hockey sense along with my compete level," he said. "I think I compete as hard, if not harder, than anyone else."

Bennett isn’t the only one trying to compete to go first overall, or in the top five, the first round or in the draft, period. Over a hundred fellow prospects joined him at this week’s combine with the aim of impressing NHL teams.

Well before the physical grind that was Saturday’s fitness testing, players gathered outside of Toronto to meet with NHL teams. Marr likened the entire process to a giant conveyor belt as these teenagers went through the mental trials of often answering the same questions over and over.

Most don’t mind it. Top European skater Kasperi Kapanen — son of former NHL forward Sami — called it "natural" to sit around and talk to people, and Draisaitl didn’t want to downplay the week, either.

"I think it’s really important for them to know what kind of a guy I am and how I work off the ice," said Draisaitl, the only German-born player at the combine. "That’s a really important part of it. It’s not only everything about the ice."

Teams have spent countless hours watching these players on the ice, and that’s not what the combine is about. Despite talk among general managers about adding on-ice testing, there is nothing of the sort, and individual teams aren’t allowed to invite prospects to their cities to skate.

At the annual GM meeting in March, commissioner Gary Bettman said there was some discussion to see "what needs to be done to make the combine as effective as possible." After consultation with strength coaches, Marr said that new, more "dynamic" tests were put in this year to better gauge players’ physical abilities.

One change was pull-ups replacing push-ups because it meant players had to lift their own body weight. While Bennett couldn’t do one, Brandon centre Jayce Hawryluk and Czech winger David Pastrnak each did 12.

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be better players, or that they’re closer to being NHL-ready.

"This isn’t a pass or fail type of test," Marr said. "It just allows the NHL teams to see where these players are in their current state of development."

Bennett, who turns 18 in June, conceded that he’ll need to work on his upper-body strength in the gym this summer. As Marr knows, that’s not unusual for junior-aged players.

"(At age) 17, 18, 19, if you go back in history with some of the players in the game, they’ll find that there was one summer that really made a difference in their physical development," he said. "So maybe at this stage he just hasn’t had that summer of development, and it’ll come."

By then, Bennett will more than likely be a top-five pick. If he goes first to the Florida Panthers — or whoever makes that selection — it’ll be clear that on-ice potential is worth tons more than a lack of pull-ups.

"It would be pretty special," Bennett said. "At the end of the day it is just a number, and everyone’s going to be in the same spot come training camp, trying to make the team. Obviously it is every kid’s dream to go as high as they can get into the NHL."

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