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Rick Dudley explains NHL Combine's fuzzy numbers, but recalls that one sure thing

Rick Dudley stood with a cup of coffee on the HarborCenter's upper concourse, while the NHL's best prospects worked out in tank tops and shorts on the arena floor below.

Dudley is the quintessential hockey scout, a tireless bird dog who bought a house 15 years ago in Lewiston, although he worked for the Chicago Blackhawks, because he mapped out 34 amateur and pro arenas within a comfortable drive.

Despite his deep curiosities, Dudley on Saturday didn't bother to glance at the teenagers leaping, shuttling and bicycling nine rows down. The NHL Scouting Combine isn't for the eyes, not until the measurements are printed onto paper, anyway.

"It's based on numbers," said Dudley, the well-traveled former Buffalo Sabres winger and recently hired Carolina Hurricanes hockey operations director. "It's not visual."

Combine numbers are fuzzier in the NHL than they are with the NFL, where players must be at least three years out of high school before qualifying for the draft.

When the NHL Draft takes place June 22 and 23 in Dallas, boys as young as 17 years old will be selected. Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, soon to join the Sabres with the first overall pick, turned 18 in April.

What if the NHL let these kids mature a couple more years before clubs staked their futures to them?

The NHL Players Association wouldn't capitulate, and the league would need to skip a couple classes to recalibrate, but Dudley insisted the draft would become significantly more efficient if skewed a few years older.

"It would be a much more accurate assessment," Dudley said. "They would be closer to where they would be as NHL players in terms of size and power. These kids develop so much from the time they're 15 to 19.

"It would be better for the sport. If you get three good players out of seven in a draft, you've done very well. If you get one, you've still done OK. If you had a 20- or 21-year-old draft, you would ratchet that up quite a bit."

There are, of course, exceptions when it comes to evaluating man-children.

A decade and a half ago, Dudley's boss was so infatuated with a 17-year-old who wasn't even eligible to be drafted that he ordered Dudley to take him anyway.

The player was all-galaxy winger Alexander Ovechkin. His Sept. 17, 1985, birthdate fell two days short of the 2003 draft-eligibility cutoff.

Alan Cohen, the Florida Panthers' owner at the time, pushed a scheme that involved the fuzziest math.

Factor in leap years, the Panthers claimed, and Ovechkin had lived enough days in his life to qualify. Never mind the fact every other player in the class lived through just as many leap years.

Anyway, the ploy failed. Miserably. As the Panthers' GM and with his hockey respectability on the line, Dudley was embarrassed.

Dudley has forgotten more hockey than most anyone else ever will encounter.

In the case of trying to smuggle Ovechkin through to the Panthers, complete details weren't recoverable Saturday at HarborCenter.

"It's something I block out of my memory," Dudley said with a laugh and side-eye glance.

Dudley recalled walking from the Panthers' 2003 draft table to the podium to forewarn NHL executives Jim Gregory, Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy.

"I don't think I went up to talk to Gary Bettman; I was too embarrassed to do that," Dudley said.

"It was something that angered me only because I'd talked to everybody in the National Hockey League, and they all told me the same thing: 'Don't do it because it's not going to happen, and we won't be thrilled with it.'

"But I couldn't convince Alan. I don't want to do anything that looks openly stupid. It couldn't possibly fly."

As legend and multiple reports from 2003 have it, the Panthers attempted to draft Ovechkin in the second, fifth, seventh and ninth rounds.

No.

Stop.

Please.

Just stop.

"I remember trying only once," Dudley said. "I think we did it in the very late rounds. I honestly don't remember."

Perhaps Dudley's recollection is semantics.

Universally agreed upon is the Panthers (perhaps tired of being slapped down on previous attempts) wanted their plea to draft Ovechkin 265th overall and the NHL's denial put in writing in the case of an appeal.

So one documented attempt.

Imagine the backlash from the NHL's other 29 teams if a court had upheld the Panthers' claim and awarded them Ovechkin, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"The scouting staff knew it was not going to happen," said Scott Luce, then the Panthers' director of amateur scouting. "It was something we had to see through for the owner at the time."

Luce now holds the same role with the Vegas Golden Knights, who are playing Ovechkin's Washington Capitals for the Stanley Cup. The son of Sabres Hall of Famer Don Luce has been in Buffalo for the NHL Scouting Combine.

"We had to put in a petition to add Ovechkin to the database, which we knew would come back denied," Luce said. "That provided proof that we made an attempt, per our owner's wishes.

"The story has gotten a lot of legs, kind of becoming legend, but it happened very quickly. It was matter-of-fact."

Attempts to reach Cohen for comment Saturday were unsuccessful. A number believed to be his wasn't accepting voicemails.

Dudley, meanwhile, reminisced about Ovechkin and the Wow Factor.

Ovechkin makes Dudley's short list of breathtaking teens along with Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid, Ilya Kovalchuk and South Buffalo's Patrick Kane.

Dudley was the assistant to Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon when they drafted Kane first overall in 2007.

"About halfway through the first game Tallon watched with me, he leaned over and said, 'That's our guy. We can leave now,' " Dudley said. "There were people who didn't think he was the first pick of that draft class.

"But I never went to an amateur or pro game where he didn't give me the Wow Factor. At some point, you will see him do something you know is special."

McDavid is the best young player Dudley has observed. Dudley recounted the time he showed up for an OHL exhibition in Hamilton. McDavid's coach for the Erie Otters, Robbie Ftorek, once was Dudley's roommate when they skated together for the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association.

McDavid still was three and a half years away from his draft. Dudley scoffed at Ftorek's suggestion to check out the young center, usually a waste of time so far away from the pro ranks.

"After the game," Dudley smiled, "I saw Robbie and said, 'I stand corrected!' You couldn't not watch him."

And that brings us back to the NHL Scouting Combine and what can be learned from heights, weights, wingspans, broad jumps and whatnot listed on sheets of paper.

Apparently not much, based on Dudley's approach Saturday.

He stood away from the railing, chatting -- as someone who has been in the NHL for 46 years would -- with about every fourth person who passed by, scouts, executives, reporters and such.

One asked him if you can experience the Wow Factor, watching prospects go through gym workouts.

He surmised some evaluators watched eventual Sabres first-round pick Casey Mittelstadt execute exactly zero pull-ups last year and lowered him on their draft boards, but added "I think it would have been a mistake."

Some prospects will puke after being wrung through the grueling Wingate aerobic bike test.

"That's a healthy thing to see," Dudley said, "because hockey is not an easy game to play, and you want them to drive as hard as they can.

"But other than that, this is pure numbers."

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