The NHL Draft Combine: What Does it Really Measure?

Combine

The NHL combine is conducted each spring leading up to the NHL Draft in June. Top prospects from around the world are invited to impress their potential future employers (NHL teams) with their physical capabilities.

Most hockey fans have a pretty good idea of what the combine is about – prospects hit the bench press, they bike as hard as they can for 30 seconds (leading to more than a few trips to the garbage can), they show how high they can jump, and other various physical tests. They also undergo psychological testing and extensive interviews at the request of the team.

Does the combine accurately predict anything? There are many schools of thought on the issue. Some teams like to target players who are physically mature and able to handle the size and strength of NHL players (Gabriel Landeskog and Colin Wilson, both recent draft picks, are great examples of this). Landeskog was an effective rookie at the age of 18 because of his physical development, while the jury is still out on Wilson.

What purpose, exactly, does the combine serve?

In recent years, the physical differences between prospects have become less and less, making analysis much more difficult:

I’ve heard similar statements from both strength coaches and psychologists over the past couple of years. Although the members of both groups are uniformly professional in withholding observations concerning individual players, they are generally quite open to discussion about overall trends. Both groups have commented that in recent years the prospects they have been observing resemble one another much more than they did in the early years of the combine.

The Hockey News compares the combine to a job interview, which may be the best definition for what it is -  a way for teams to poke and prod potential future employees and to compare them against their competition.

How important is the combine? Let me first ask the question: how many businesses would hire new employees for high-paying jobs without some form of interview? I have always said that it is dangerous to upgrade a prospect on your draft list just because of a favorable interview or good results on a particular fitness test. However, prospects often drop because of character concerns exhibited during the interviews. Body appearance or a poor competitive drive shown in the fitness tests can also be a drawback.

Other teams like to target players with a lot of room to grow. Columbus did this with Derrick Brassard in 2006 – he was much skinnier and weaker than fellow prospects like Jordan Staal, Peter Mueller, and Jonathan Toews. Does this mean Brassard won’t be as good as a rookie? Probably. But it also gives him more room to grow, more muscle to add on, and more strength to gain. Brassard has battled injuries, but is looking like he is on his way to becoming a solid NHL player (albeit six years after his draft year).

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Steven Stamkos were both skinny and underdeveloped as draft-eligible prospects. Stamkos is now extremely fit and strong relative to his size, and Nugent-Hopkins has put on about 15 pounds over the past year.

Here is a PDF with more information as to what the NHL combine tests. Body composition, Aerobic and anaerobic (with and without oxygen, respectively), hand-eye coordination, strength, power, endurance, and flexibility are all tested.

Body Composition

Stamkos

Steven Stamkos getting measured

To test body composition (what the body is comprised of – fat or non-fat, essentially), the NHL uses skinfold calipers, which are reasonably accurate, assuming you know how to use them. Height, wingspan, and weight are all of course recorded, too.Strength and Power 

Taylor Hall showing the grip strength test

For the strength portion of the test, players have to show their grip strength (using a hand grip dynamometer), an upper body push and pull strength test, and how many repetitions they can do on the bench press with 150 pounds (a bar with one 45 pound plate on each side weighs 135 pounds for comparisons sake). The players also do pushups, a long jump, and a vertical jump.

Flexibility Good trunk flexibility decreases the risk of muscle and joint injury and in particular back injury.  It is important that the player engages in an adequate warm-up prior to performing this test. The players perform a simple trunk flexion (or sit and reach) test.

Cardiovascular Ability Anaerobic

Anaerobic fitness is important to hockey players because of the many rapid spurts of energy that are involved.  The energy required during short-term high intensity exercise is derived primarily from two anaerobic energy systems.  They are termed anaerobic (an = without, aerobic = oxygen utilization) because they do not use oxygen.  In very brief (up to 15 sec) explosive type exercise, energy is obtained primarily from energy stored in the muscle.  In high intensity exercise which is continued for 15 to 90 sec, energy is derived primarily from the anaerobic utilization of muscle glycogen.  However, when energy is derived in this manner, a by-product called lactic acid builds up in the muscles and impairs performance.

This is the famous Wingate VO2 test. Players sit on a bike and pedal as hard as they can – as time progresses, the resistance level on the bike is increased. Red Wings prospect Ryan Sproul on the Wingate:

Aerobic

Cardio-respiratory (aerobic) fitness refers to the capacity of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to the muscles.  High intensity activities which are continued for two minutes or longer, or repeated bouts of high intensity exercise with minimal recovery time, are limited by this capacity.  Aerobic fitness is assessed by measuring the amount of oxygen utilized (VO2max) during maximal cycle ergometer exercise employing volume determination and analysis of expired air.  In addition, heart rate is monitored continuously.

The two different systems are very important for all athletes, and hockey players are no different.

Medical Overview The players also undergo rigorous physical examinations to look for any injuries, imbalances, or other health issues that may affect their ability to play hockey.

Many things can be pulled from the combine. It really depends what you go into it looking for. A player giving it his all on the Wingate test shows more than just a high VO2 max, it shows mental toughness and the ability to push through extreme discomfort. Hockey players routinely have to play through pain (an 82 game season will do that), and many prospects who play shorter seasons are not used to it. A prospect who shows that he is able to perform through discomfort usually sees his draft stock rise. However, there are many other elements of the combine that are archaic.

Does the barbell bench press translate over to hockey at all? Sure, it is a solid and standard test for upper body strength, but it doesn’t really predict much in terms of hockey performance.

NHL Central Scouting Dave Marr shares his thoughts on the combine:

“I don’t think it will change a team’s impression of a player, but they definitely want to know where he’s at. They don’t want to find out afterward that you might not be able to attend training camp for one reason or another associated with the injury, so they look at where they can get the current status and the projected status of these players. I don’t really feel that the injury and recovery period will influence whether they select the player or not … it just gives them a good idea where they are with current status.”

NHL training guru Gary Roberts doesn’t even use the barbell bench press with his hockey players during the summer.

On the bench press:

“It’s okay for brute strength. I’m not saying we never do it. But very rarely do we have anybody on benches. When do you ever push something when you’re lying on a supported bench? We do single-arm, heavy bench press on a Swiss ball. So you’ve got one arm with a 70- or 80-pound dumbbell, and you’ve got to use your core to stabilize yourself or you’re going to fall off the ball. And your other arm is resting on your abdominals. That’s how you do bench press for hockey players.”

Results from previous NHL Draft Combines:

Alex Galchenyuk was the fittest prospect in terms of anaerobic output. Sharks 1st round pick Tomas Hertl had the highest VO2 max (aerobic fitness). Canucks 1stround pick Brendan Gaunce was near the top in all of the lower body power exercises.

Tyler Seguin and Charlie Coyle were tops in the anaerobic category. Nick Bjugstad and Coyle were near the top in the mean power output category. Taylor Hall didn’t even participate in his combine, as he was injured and run down from a long season with Windsor (OHL).

It would take a while to find a direct correlation between combine performance and how a prospect turns out. There are so many other variables that are much more important – how he is handled by his NHL team in terms of development, and health, among others. Jordan Schroeder was surprisingly near the top of the strength tests in 2009, but he has yet to play a game in the NHL. Jared Cowen is going to be a very solid defenseman for Ottawa for a long time, but did we need impressive testing results to figure that out?

Phoenix GM Don Maloney on his impressions from the 2012 combine:

I think generally the players are in such great (physical) condition. From five years ago to now, its really rare … I think there might have been two players that you look at and say he might not be in the greatest shape. Everybody else is just lean and ripped and strong and testing hard. It’s really impressive how mature physically some of these young kids are.

More from Maloney:

I think you have to be careful of putting too much emphasis on the physical development — or lack thereof — of the player. I think (these results) just go in the database along with video and watching players live and psychological tests that people do and interviews. That’s what I’ve learned.

And Roberts would be happy to read this from Maloney, too:

“I used to be glued to the bench press when I first got here, I wanted to see how strong they were, but now I’m at the point that’s the least important thing.”

Nowadays, prospects are all in top shape. The ones that aren’t stick out like a sore thumb during the combine. Teams can find out about a player’s injury history (important), body composition, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular level (ambiguous level of importance), and how well a player interviews (again, ambiguous). Many people still don’t really “get” the combine. Having the strongest player isn’t necessarily good. And it isn’t necessarily bad, either. It all depends how scouts and general managers interpret the results from each component of the combine.

So he didn’t interview well…

Phil Kessel, for example, had a poor showing at his combine. However, he is one of the best pure goal scorers in the game. Does it matter what he benches, how he interviews, or how strong his grip strength is? It is also a case of cart and horse.

Does a prospect have an elite ability to score goals because he is strong and powerful, or is it because of his hockey sense and instincts? Does a prospect who can’t even bench 150 pounds increase his goal output if he gets stronger? There are much more functional movements for hockey players that could easily be implemented – squats, deadlifts, and cleans all test a person through more hockey-based movements than a bench press, for example.In today’s increasingly statistical and analytical sporting landscape, NHL teams still view the combine as more art than science. What are your thoughts on the combine? What purpose does it serve? Nail Yakupov’s 2012 combine test:

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