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NHL Combine puts focus on league’s future stars

Buffalo is getting both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

For one week, anyway.

The NHL Scouting Combine starts Monday, and the league’s future stars will do interviews in First Niagara Center and test their fitness levels in HarborCenter. The top two prospects, McDavid and Eichel, are scheduled to be among the 120 teenagers showing teams why they should be selected in June’s draft.

Fans may glimpse the prospects wandering through Canalside or grabbing dinner somewhere, but that will be the extent of the interaction.

The events, which are run by the league, are closed to the public. Teams will conduct interviews Monday through Friday, and the players will work out Friday and Saturday.

Buffalo will get the benefit of hundreds of visitors trekking through the burgeoning waterfront and talking about the city and the prospects when they get home.

“It sounds like the Sabres and Terry Pegula have done an outstanding job putting this together,” Stu MacGregor, the head amateur scout for the Edmonton Oilers, told NHL.com. “The development in and around First Niagara Center and the fitness facilities available to the players to perform the tests will be outstanding. It’ll be great to see that whole thing come together.

“It’s a very exciting time around Buffalo, and I’m looking forward to this.”

While the Combine is usually a chance to debate which player should be selected first overall, there’s no suspense this year. MacGregor and the Oilers will take McDavid, the junior hockey superstar who has made scouts salivate since he was 14.

The second pick is a lock, too, with Buffalo ready to select Eichel on June 26 in Florida. The Sabres will get a chance to sit down with the Boston University center this week and sell him on their future. He’ll get the opportunity to see the city for the second time in nine months. He played in the arena in September as part of the All-American Prospects Game.

The rest of the prospects will get the chance to talk and bike their way up teams’ draft boards.

“What the players have to keep in mind is that this will be their initial contact with many NHL teams, so they have the chance to make that good initial impression,” Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, told the league website. “Some kids aren’t that comfortable when they’re in an interview environment, so it’s important they be prepared to talk about themselves, which is something they might not be used to doing.

“The Combine gives the NHL teams a chance to get to know the player away from the rink.”

The event was held near Toronto for its first 21 years, but the Sabres successfully bid to move it to Buffalo. This is the first of a two-year deal. Buffalo will also host the 2016 Draft, giving the city an entire month to focus on hockey’s future.

The move from a conference hall to a dual-arena setting has led to numerous changes. Rather than conducting interviews in their hotels, teams will talk with prospects inside suites in First Niagara Center. The spaciousness of HarborCenter will allow for better viewing, live results and video recording during the fitness tests.

“The goal is to present an event that allows NHL personnel to interact with the future stars of our game and assist the NHL clubs in their pursuit of gaining as much knowledge about the draft prospects as possible,” Marr told NHL.com.

While the interviews are vital to the teams, the public eats up information from the 12-part fitness portion. Sam Bennett’s inability to do a single pull-up gained attention last year, while the pained looks during the bicycle tests make for lasting images.

In a big change, the scouts will conduct their two bike tests on separate days. The VO2 Max, which measures endurance, will be Friday. The Wingate, which measures explosiveness, will be Saturday. Players have been known to vomit or collapse during both.

“To have them do those tests almost back-to-back really wasn’t a valid indicator to where a player was at,” said Marr, who expects 99 prospects from North America and 21 from Europe. “Central Scouting looks forward to hosting the prospects during Combine week so that they can further showcase themselves.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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