MISSISSAUGUA, Ont. — Sam Bennett, the top-ranked draft prospect, had meeting after meeting with general managers at the NHL Scouting Combine. More often than not, they asked if he was ready to jump into the NHL.
His answer never wavered.
“I do feel like I’ll be ready come training camp,” Bennett said Saturday in International Centre. “I’m going to work really hard in the gym this summer and on the ice to be ready for the NHL this year. I was asked by a whole bunch of teams if I thought I was ready, and my answer every time was I think I’m ready to play next year.”
The 17-year-old center has the size and talent to at least make a strong case. He had 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League. At 6-foot and 178 pounds, he could probably handle the physical challenges.
He could not, however, handle a new fitness test at the Combine. The league added overhand pull-ups this year, and Bennett’s total was ... zero.
“No, I wasn’t able to do that,” he said with a pained smile. “My upper body really isn’t my strong suit, but that’s something I’ll be working on in the gym this year.
“I was definitely disappointed with myself. I always want to do the best I can in every test, but I guess ultimately games aren’t won or lost if you can do a pullup in the gym. I guess I’m not too, too worried about it.”
The screams of “faster, keep it going, you’ve got to go!” echoed through the conference hall as the prospects worked out. Two bike tests took the biggest toll.
Dylan Larkin, the 17th-ranked prospect according to NHL Central Scouting, nearly collapsed off his bike while taking part in the VO2 max. Players’ noses are blocked and a long plastic tube that measures oxygen intake is sealed over their mouths. Workers adjust the wheel tension, and the rider must maintain their RPM in a ride that can last 14 minutes.
Larkin was tended to by a half-dozen personnel before finally putting his head down on the handlebars for a few moments. He slowly walked off on his own minutes later.
“I’ve never been through anything like that,” he said.
The Wingate bike test features players pedaling as fast as possible for 30 seconds with workers shouting encouragement. It can measure skating explosiveness, though it nearly made top-ranked European skater Kasperi Kapanen lose his mind.
“You’ve got that guy screaming at you and you just want to smack him at the same time,” said the son of longtime NHLer Sami Kapanen. “It’s hard. The second one you just kind of get exhausted. You get really lightheaded, and I think I puked a little after that, so it’s not fun.”
The Sabres’ contingent during the weeklong Combine featured General Manager Tim Murray, but he didn’t stick around for Saturday’s workouts. Doug McKenney, the strength and conditioning coach, and his assistant, J.T. Allaire, represented the team during the fitness tests.
Colorado and Detroit engaged in one of the NHL’s most bitter rivalries during the 1990s. One of the defining moments came during Game Six of the 1996 Western Conference final, when Claude Lemieux of the Avalanche hit Kris Draper from behind and drove the face of the Red Wings forward into the boards. Lemieux’s dirty blast resulted in Draper breaking his jaw, cheek and orbital bone.
Draper is a special assistant to Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland. Lemieux’s son, Brendan, is the 28th-ranked prospect. Detroit invited the 18-year-old for an interview, and Draper helped conduct it.
“We had a great conversation,” Brendan Lemieux said. “He’s a really nice guy.”
While the chat went well, it was still surreal.
“I did not think I was going to get interviewed by them, let alone have it be serious. I thought they were going to walk in, make a few jokes and I was going to leave,” Lemieux said. “I have nothing but good things to say about their organization. They were extremely professional, and they barely brought it up. I tried to joke about it, and they weren’t even budging.
“I was really impressed. I have no problem playing in Detroit after that interview, for sure.”