2019 NHL Combine: What to Watch For

It’s here. Welcome to NHL Combine Week, 2019 edition.

That means we are less than a month away from the NHL Draft. Business will finally start to pick up. And that’s where our story begins with the Combine. While there are many things we watch for, perhaps our biggest story is what I call “the chatter.”

Think of who will be in Buffalo this week besides the prospects themselves. Every team will have a contingent of staff on hand. Many teams will have their general manager there. What happens when you have many GM’s together? Chatter and lots of it.

But it’s more than that. Media from all over North America will be there too. This is a chance to chat with them to get a sense of what they’re hearing about their team. The puzzle pieces start to come together regarding how the months of June and July will unfold.

As a real-life example, it was at this event two years ago, the year Vegas entered the league, where we started hearing rumblings of the Blue Jackets trading David Clarkson’s contract to the Golden Knights. It happened. Not every piece of chatter comes true. But some of it does and it’s our job to filter out fact from fiction.

Prospects will spend the week interviewing teams, getting their medicals and then they will end the week taking the dreaded fitness testing on Saturday. We will speak to as many of the prospects as we can. The Hockey Writers will be in Buffalo Friday and from the crack of dawn Saturday until the last prospect speaks. We will also have the ever famous heights and weights live Saturday night.

But are we watching for? Let’s take you inside our minds and give you a first look at the storylines we are following.

The Chicago Blackhawks

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. New Jersey and the New York Rangers are getting Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko in some order. Even if they can’t complete one pull-up, this is happening. The focus then turns to the owner of the third pick, the Blackhawks. And they have a decision to make.

They are going to land a great player. But they have choices. And depending on who they choose will dictate how the first round will play out. In my mind, there are three guys they are considering at this spot. The two clubhouse leaders are defenseman Bowen Byram and center Alex Turcotte, who happens to be from Island Lake, IL, about an hour northwest of downtown Chicago. But I wouldn’t put it past them if they look hard at Kirby Dach as well.

So it’s the age-old question. We have two very talented centers and one excellent defenseman. Conventional wisdom says take the best player. But who will that be? Oh to be in the mind of Stan Bowman here. In Turcotte and Dach, you have two potential number one centers of the future. In Byram, you have a potential replacement for the great Duncan Keith.

I’m curious to see how the Blackhawks approached the week with these players especially the interviews. What questions were asked? What were they looking for out of these players? And what case did each prospect make to the Blackhawks trying to convince them they are the best available player?

The Blackhawks will be making a franchise altering decision with the third pick. On my current list, I have Byram going third. Defenseman like him don’t come around often. But we’ll start to get a better idea of how the Blackhawks might be thinking at the Combine.

Bowen Byram Vancouver Giants
(Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants) Bowen Byram was named the CHL’s Top Prospect. Is that enough for the Blackhawks to take him third?

It’s the Top-15, then Madness

Most rankings I’ve seen have the top-15 being the cutoff between the best talent and a steep drop. Of course there are 31 picks in round one.

What are we watching for here? Who makes their case? Who impressed both at the interview and the fitness testing? If there is one thing about the fitness testing I watch for, it’s not necessarily the individual results. It’s more confirming what I think I know versus reality. If a prospect puts up a result that I don’t see coming, I take note of it. If I didn’t account for that in my scouting report, it’s now an extra piece of information I can use to get a fuller picture of the prospect.

Now back to the top-15 and beyond. This is a case where someone could make a case this week in creating separation. In other words, there just isn’t much separation in the prospects 16-40 in my mind. Would anybody really complain if a team say took London’s Connor McMichael instead of Ryan Suzuki if both were available? These two are close enough in my rankings were it wouldn’t bother me either way. Yet if one has a great week here, it could sway my thinking depending on the result.

The other thing here with this kind of bunching is the possibility of trades at the draft. If prospects are in fact this close, we could see a bevy of trades if a team has someone high on their list and could trade a couple spots up to grab them. The thing we’ll spend time doing is confirming if in fact this draft is the top-15 and then a steep drop or if there’s more to the top group.

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Risers and Fallers

Flashback to 2018 for a minute. There was a prospect named Liam Foudy who went from 93rd at midterm to 19th at final and ultimately became a first rounder in the draft. There’s something to pinpointing why someone rises and falls especially when it’s a significant number of spots.

First player that comes to mind this year is Moose Jaw’s Brayden Tracey. He went from 73rd to 21st on Central Scouting’s rankings. He’s now in late first-round territory. Curious. Tracey is someone we want to talk with to get his sense of everything and how his week went. Tracey did post 81 points in 66 games leading all rookies in the CHL. That’s great. But then on the other side, he played with Tristin Langan and Justin Almeida who each had over 110 points this season. Is Tracey’s production a result of his linemates? Can he produce like this on his own?

Ryan Suzuki came into the season on most boards as the top OHL prospect available. Now Arthur Kaliyev, Thomas Harley, Philip Tomasino and Nicholas Robertson are ranked higher than Suzuki according to Central Scouting. Go to from the top-10 down like this is very noticeable. We’ll chat with the group to get a fuller story.

Other movers include Armada defenseman Samuel Bolduc (87th to 42nd), US NTDP defenseman Warren Marshall (39th to 61st), Prince George defenseman Layton Ahac (114th to 62nd), Tri-City defenseman Ronald Attard (143rd to 76th) and high school center Ryder Donovan (46th to 97th). We’re also curious about Central Illinois center Trevor Janicke. He’s the lowest ranked player (119th) at the Combine. Enough teams are interested, so we’ll see what’s going on there.

Ryan Suzuki Barrie Colts
Ryan Suzuki was in the top-10 early on but isn’t now. We’ll find out why. (Terry Wilson OHL Images)

This Year’s Rasmus Sandin

By far the best moment of the 2018 Combine was Rasmus Sandin talking about being asked about the game Fortnite. He then came up with the money quote of the day. He said he usually wins and doesn’t hide in the bushes. This is really why we’re all here, right?

Everyone laughed at the moment but it really gave us an insight to how Sandin views things. The Maple Leafs liked what they saw and drafted him. He’s a big part of their future.

We want to find out the quirky questions that are asked of prospects. I want to see personality. I want to see how prospects handle something unexpected. Is it another expected, canned answer or do they go with the flow like Sandin did? You can bet we’ll ask what the strangest questions were. I wonder if the “which direction the school bus is travelling” question will come up. Or if you could be an Avenger, which one would you be and why? And how much will Fortnite and other video games be asked about? We’ll let you know.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin’s Fortnite quote stole the show in 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Our coverage of the Combine starts Friday afternoon when top prospects speak. Then we’ll be at Harbor Center starting at 6:30 in the morning Saturday and have all-day coverage for you. I’ll be joined by colleagues Nathaniel Oliver and Andrew Forbes.

The NHL Draft is finally in sight.