The NHL Scouting Combine is like a boutique shopping experience for team executives and scouts.
The weeklong event began Sunday and ends Saturday in Buffalo. For the first several days, teams are granted staff-on-one interviews with players of their choosing.
At the tail end of the event, players will be run through a series of 12 physical tests including a balance test, a functional movement test, grip strength, bench presses, a standing jump, pull-ups, a shuttle run, a VO2max test on a stationary bike and the infamous Wingate Cycle Ergometer Test that measures power and endurance.
For Coyotes general manager John Chayka, the interviews are more informative than the single-day, small sample-size testing, but both play a role in his staff’s evaluation.
“It’s the last chance to collect some more information before the draft,” Chayka said. “A big part of why we feel good about what we’re doing here is we’ve got a lot of good young players in our system that are really high-character people so the combine is an important part of the evaluation for our staff. They’ve been collecting information all year, but the chance to finally meet them — myself and (assistant GM) Steve Sullivan included — and spend some time with them and get to know them is always a good experience.
“It’s subjective analysis but we certainly try to have a standardized approach, try different things to glean as much information as we can. They are short interviews and you don’t want to overanalyze them but you want to get a sense of their values, what drives them, their world view and see if there is an alignment with our organizational goals. It’s just part of the process and their on-ice play is a very significant factor, but when you’re getting down to making a pick and there’s a group of players you like, these are things that can make a difference.”
Chayka said the Coyotes planned to interview 85 of the 104 prospects in attendance, which can make for long days.
“I’m in interviews for nine hours a day,” Chayka said, laughing. “It’s tough. One of the tricks is just trying to maintain focus because it’s the little things that separate these interviews. All these kids are so good now. They’re well-rehearsed and well coached so it’s often a lot about how they say something as much as what they say.”
While some teams have tried unorthodox methods, including bringing sports psychologists or Navy Seals, Chayka called the Coyotes’ approach informal.
“Everyone is searching for a way to find an advantage but our approach is more, get to know them and allow their personality to come out; their views on hockey and world view to come out,” he said. “We try to understand what they do outside of the rink and what motivates them.
“We want well-rounded people. We think it’s a sign of healthy, stable people. Ultimately, we feel if we know the player in depth and the person in depth, we’re going to make a more accurate decision.”
The Coyotes have been building their draft board the entire season based off information from their scouts, their management staff and director of amateur scouting, Tim Bernhardt, but the final pieces of analysis come from the combine.
When it has concluded, the scouting and management staffs will construct a draft board of about 150 players with a grading system that includes multiple data points. That board will guide the Coyotes’ decisions at the NHL Draft at Dallas’s American Airlines Center from June 22-23.
While this weekend’s physical tests will garner the most attention from fans, Chayka said the information gleaned from those tests will have limited impact.
“I don’t think we’re going to draft anyone based off of Saturday’s results,” he said. “A good test doesn’t even mean a high result. If you’re going to make decisions based off of that, I think you’re going to make more mistakes than you are going to make good decisions, but to not include it in the evaluation of players would be a mistake as well.
“We’re try to make it part of the process without over-valuing one thing over another. How everyone weighs all the different inputs is really the secret sauce here.”
— Chayka was asked if the Coyotes would need to consider alternatives, including a trade, if they can’t agree to a contract extension with defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson before the NHL Draft.
“We want to put this organization in the best possible situation long-term,” Chayka said. “We want Oliver to be a big part of that. He’s a big rock in this whole building process. To have an indication of where he stands prior to the draft is, I think, important to being able to move forward and being able to build this team out.”
ArizonaSports.com reported earlier this month that the Coyotes were discussing an eight-year extension with Ekman-Larsson with an average annual value of about $8.2 million. The Coyotes are also interested in extending defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who, like Ekman-Larsson, will enter the final year of his contract next season.
“Both of those guys we view as key cultural guys that we’d like to extend and keep a part of the Coyotes for the long term,” Chayka said. “We’re having those discussions. Obviously, nothing can be done with either of them until July 1, but they’ve been positive discussions so far. I think those guys understand where we’re headed and where we’re at and the young group that we have and how we’re building.”
Chayka addressed a series of reports that suggested the Pittsburgh Penguins have interest in Coyotes restricted free-agent wing Max Domi.
“Teams want good players so it doesn’t surprise me when good players are desirable,” he said. “Reports are always out there but we’re focused on building out our team. I think Max is a good player.”
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