Dennis Gilbert was happy to show off his hometown to the other 100 or so players roaming around downtown Buffalo for the NHL Combine.
He could point them in the right direction to get to the rink or to meals. The familiarity with the places and the faces helped the St. Joe’s graduate find a confident comfort zone while he interviewed and tested with teams in hopes of raising his stock for the draft later this month.
But he also spent the last year in Chicago, playing for the Steel of the United States Hockey League, and returned to find a revitalized downtown that has Gilbert ready to appear in a tourism ad.
“I was gone all year so I didn’t really see the HarborCenter until I got back in the spring, but it looks great downtown,” Gilbert said after he completed his fitness testing on the final day of the NHL Combine. “The Canalside is awesome. It’s kind of cool how everything is coming together. What really was nothing a couple years ago is now such a great part of the city.”
Gilbert entered the week focused on enjoying the process. Two years ago, after he won a state title with St. Joe’s, he never would have expected to be auditioning for NHL scouts. He spent his senior year of high school playing for the Jr. Sabres, then made the jump to Chicago and the USHL. The move helped round out his game, earn him a spot at Notre Dame and rank him 58th by Central Scouting.
“I think my biggest improvement has been recognizing my new style of play,” Gilbert said. “I was a really offensive defenseman my junior year of high school and then with the Jr. Sabres and then this year out in Chicago, I was learning how to play the defensive side of the game – work really hard in my own zone, shut down a top line or be more physical or tenacious in my own zone.”
While most players dread the bike test, Gilbert said the toughest part of Saturday’s fitness testing were the pull-ups.
“I did eight to 10 and got credit for four,” Gilbert said. “That’s tough.”
Kyle Capobianco was also familiar with hockey in Buffalo after making the trip many times from Mississauga to watch his older brother, Tony, play for Canisius College.
The youngest Capobianco thought about the college route, as well, until he became a first-round pick in the OHL Priority draft.
“I came to see him play all the time,” Capobianco said. “It was a tough decision for me with Tony playing at Canisius. I definitely thought about college, but after I was drafted high, I decided to go to juniors.”
He was picked seventh overall in 2013 by Sudbury and played there the last two seasons.
“It was a tough year with a lot of ups and downs,” Capobianco said of Sudbury’s season as the Wolves finished last in the OHL.
But individually, the season was solid for Capobianco as the defenseman had 40 points (10 goals and 30 assists) in 68 games. He entered the Combine ranked 44th by Central Scouting after making his debut on the Players to Watch list in November.
He describes himself as an offensive defenseman who skates well with the puck.
Terse with his answers (much like his brother during his Canisius days), Capobianco said his goal for the week was to “just try and do his best.” He talked with some players who had experienced the Combine before, but didn’t go too in depth.
“You try to just experience it for yourself,” he said.
The most dreaded station among the seven fitness tests is the Wingate Cycle Ergometer.
Here’s how it works – players get on the bike and warm up for two minutes. They increase their cadence until they reach their maximum pedaling capacity then go as hard as they can for 30 seconds as resistance is added to the bike.
“I think it’s just you psyche yourself out,” Jack Rosolvic said. “It’s kind of like the whole week. We’re all athletes here and we all like to push ourselves to the max so I think it’s more the mental side that hurts people from time to time. But I think that physically we’re all capable.”
“Everybody says it’s the hardest 30 seconds of your life,” Karch Barchman said. “I could definitely attest to that after doing it today. It starts fine, the weight goes on everything’s fine for the first 15 seconds and then second half is just horrible. You get over it.”
Caleb Jones didn’t think it was all so bad.
“It’s a 30-second all-out burst of explosiveness,” Jones said. “It’s tiring but it’s not too bad when you’re into it.”
For Gilbert, it’s the perfect metaphoric ending to Combine week: “Everyone tries to work as hard they can and push themselves to the limit for that 30 seconds and when you’re done with that it’s definitely a good way to end the week because it kind of sums it all up – the challenge and the hardship to go through it.”
Last week, Anthony Cirelli scored the game-winning goal in overtime to clinch the Memorial Cup for the Oshawa Generals.
There was no time to rest for the 17-year old center from Woodbridge, Ont., as he was the first person to finish Saturday’s fitness testing.
There wasn’t even much time for him to absorb the fact he notched that OT game-winner to give his team the Canadian Hockey League championship.
“Now I’m starting to realize that happened,” Cirelli said. “The days after I was in complete shock. It was kind of a blur. The team played great all year long. We worked so hard for it. To get that goal is an unbelievable feeling. It’s been an unbelievable journey for me.”
His journey includes going undrafted by a major-junior team after playing Midget. He signed as a free agent with Oshawa.
In 68 regular season games, he scored 13 goals with 33 assists. In 21 playoff games he scored two goals – both in the Memorial Cup title game last Sunday in Quebec City.
That didn’t leave much time for get ready for the Combine.
“We just finished playing Sunday so I didn’t really have much time to prepare for this so I just came in here working my hardest and doing my best,” Cirelli said. “It’s been a great season so far for me. Going to the Memorial Cup, not even expecting to be on the team and winning a Memorial Cup, it’s unbelievable. It’s been a great year but I have to focus on next season now. It’s just been busy for me. I’m thinking back now to see how it all came about, but it’s just been exciting.”
It was a busy week for Kyle Connor. He had interviews with 25 of the 30 NHL teams and is a potential top-10 draft pick.
But he still went into Saturday’s fitness testing looking to make a statement.
“I think everyone has something to prove,” Connor said. “You want to make an impression on scouts.” Being a top 10 pick “could happen. You never know.”
Connor had a standout season for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League. He was named the USHL player and forward of the year and won USA Hockey’s Dave Tyler Player of the Year Award, given to the top American-born junior player.
In 56 games this year he scored 34 goals, including a league-high nine game-winners, with 46 assists. In his USHL career he racked up 195 points (82 goals, 113 assists) in 174 games.
Central Scouting has him ranked No. 13.
The rankings aren’t something Connor can control, so he doesn’t follow them closely. But the way he plays, that’s completely in his control and what helped him become one of the better American players in his age group.
“Midway through the season we were in fifth place looking up and I wanted to make a statement,” Connor said. “I turned my season around at that point.”
He did just that as the Phantoms finished with the best record in the league.
“Personally I played really well,” Connor said. “I think I took a lot of strides … getting stronger throughout the season, my stride and skating ability and working on getting stronger.”
A native of Shelby Township, Mich., he will play for the University of Michigan next season, instead of jumping to the OHL and was emphatic he would be with the Wolverines and not jump to the OHL instead.
“I’m really looking forward to getting in there and getting Michigan back to the tournament,” he said.
He also had high praise for the USHL – considered the best junior league in the United States with a growing reputation for producing elite players.
“The league is getting better every year and producing more first rounders,” Connor said. “I think USHL does a great job developing players. For me, I’d like to put on little strength. For me that’s one of my weakness so with the game schedule and school it gives you an opportunity to work on your strength. … There’s a a lot of talent in USHL. Every game is tough. It’s a battle.”
When Seth Jones went to the NHL Combine in 2013, he didn’t take part in the fitness testing being just three days removed from playing in the Memorial Cup.
So when young brother Caleb was getting advice on how to approach the 2015 Combine, there were no bragging right incentives for the long jump or bench press.
But there still was plenty of advice.
“It helps out so much because he tells you what to expect and there are no surprises when you get here,” Caleb said. “They moved the Combine from Toronto so there are few different things, but for the most part he helped me out. He told me ‘be yourself and everything should go smoothly.’
“He just said have fun. That really was his biggest thing. That,” your draft year “is going to be a fun year, don’t take it for granted. It goes by really quick. Enjoy the draft and all the process that goes with it.”
While Seth, playing with Nashville, can offer Caleb hockey-centric advice, he also gets tips from his father, Ron “Popeye” Jones who played 11 seasons in the NBA.
“I try to listen to what they say a lot,” Caleb said. “With my dad, it’s mainly about being an athlete. He was a basketball player. I just try to be own player. I try to work hard every day. I don’t really consider myself Seth’s brother. I’m Caleb. I’m my own person and I’m trying to make my own legacy.”
While other kids were growing up idolizing NHL All-Stars, Karch Bachman was a huge fan of another team – the Fort Wayne Komets of the East Coast Hockey League.
There’s not a big hockey community in Bachman’s hometown of Wolcottville in northeastern Indiana. There’s not even an ice rink. But once Bachman fell in love with hockey, he found a way into the game.
“There are no ice rinks close to me,” Bachman said. “I guess in the winter the pond outback freezes and that’s about all I’ve got.”
So he drove an hour to find teams to play with, including spending seven years commuting to Detroit. This past season he played high school hockey for the Culver Military Academy and committed to Miami (Ohio) University.
Once he solved his geography problem he ran into another one – injuries. This year began with a hip inflammation. Then he broke a bone in his hand. As soon as he could, he was back on the ice.
“I played with a cast molded to my stick,” Bachman said. “We had to tape my hand to my stick and just slide it in and out. I couldn’t really shoot or pass or stick handle but it was all right.”
Limited by injury he still tallied 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 20 games. He came into the Combine ranked 87th by Central Scouting seeing the week as an opportunity.
“Not being one of the top guys here, first of all an honor to be here in the first place,” Bachman said. “My expectations going in were just to improve my stock as much as I can. Regardless of how I did, the experience was great.
“I wanted to show I’ve got a lot more to offer having a couple of injuries this year didn’t get to play a full season, playing high school I didn’t get to play with some of the top players in the world like those who are here. I think I had something to prove and I left it all out there today.”
And whatever happens on draft day, Bachman sees himself better for the experience.
“Two years ago if you would have asked me if I’d be here I would have said absolutely not,” he said. “Now being here and getting to be around some of the best players in the country, you definitely see how the guys do it, how the McDavids and Eichels prepare, how they use their strengths to their advantage and work on that to try and improve my game.
“I know I don’t quite have the size or the stature of some of the guys right now but I’m just trying to work on little things to help improve my game.”
For the past two years, the U.S. National Team Developmental Program had been working toward winning a gold medal at the IIHF U-18 World Championships this year.
The mission was accomplished, in overtime, against Finland.
But the byproduct of the two-year journey was creating a roster of NHL prospects.
Nine players from that team were at the NHL Combine.
“It definitely makes it a little more comfortable,” Jack Rosolvic said of having eight of his teammates with him in Buffalo. “We’re all competitors. There’s really no bad blood either between any of us. We’ve been doing it for the past two years so it’s fun and we definitely all compete. We’re all 18 year olds, a lot of testosterone, a lot of competitiveness, so it’s good.”
The year-round training program was launched by USA Hockey in 1996 and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., playing regular season games in the USHL along with exhibitions against college teams. The USNTDP has had 246 players drafted in the NHL including 51st round picks. Overall No. 1 picks Patrick Kane (2007), Erik Johnson (2006) and Rick DiPietro (2000) are alums of the program.
“Every practice you’ve got to be good,” Caleb Jones said of playing for the team. “You’ve got to get used to getting beat and trying to get better. We had so many good forwards and everybody on the ice is competitive and good. Even in practices you’re always improving and in the weight room we push each other. I think it was huge for my career.”