As is custom every year, hundreds of teenagers descended upon Buffalo last week to partake in workouts for the NHL Scouting Combine and to interview with multiple teams prior to the NHL draft.
Another thing that is a near certainty? Every prospect at the workouts has a story to tell.
Take Spencer Knight, for example. The best goaltender in this year’s draft class has been compared to Carey Price by some but isn’t a guarantee to go in the first round. A recent trend for most NHL teams has been to wait until the second round in order to select a goalie but Knight made a case for that trend to change.
“Personally I don’t you can win without good goaltending. I think it’s been proven,” Knight said. “If you have a really good team but your goaltending struggles, you don’t make it that far. You can’t win a Stanley Cup without good goaltending.
“If you hit the jackpot on your goalie – and a lot of teams have, like Tampa and Pittsburgh – it pays off. For someone like me the on-ice stuff speaks for itself, I think my mental makeup, the way I think things out and my maturity kind of stands out among others.”
Some are coming into this draft with something to prove. Cole Caufield of the U.S. National Team Development Program, a 72-goal scorer this past season, is aiming to become the latest scoring sensation in the NHL who stands at 5’9” or shorter.
“It’s just pretty special looking at what Alex DeBrincat did for the league, guys like (Cam) Atkinson, even (Brendan) Gallagher and (Jonathan) Marchessault,” Caufield said. “I think all of those guys having success at the top level, being slight guys I think it’s given guys like me hope. The way the game’s played, it’s all speed and skill. I don’t think size is a big risk anymore. I think that’s why guys like me can have a big impact.”
Another person looking to prove his detractors wrong is Brett Leason. The former Tri-City American turned Prince Albert Raider has always had the talent to make it to the NHL – evidenced by his 30-game point streak this season – but was passed over in last year’s draft due to numerous reasons.
“My first year being draft-eligible, I didn’t do too much,” Leason said. “I don’t think I really had a chance to be able to show my skills. I didn’t play good-enough hockey to be here.
“Tri-City had an older, more experienced group and I never really got the opportunity or the chance to step up and show what I could do.”
Connor McMichael of the London Knights wanted to show NHL decision-makers that versatility – perhaps the strongest asset he displayed while in Canadian junior – could help his cause. But McMichael was also level-headed enough to know that he had areas of his game that could use improvement.
“I can play anywhere in a lineup,” McMichael said. “Obviously everyone wants to be a top-six forward in the NHL, but it’s better trying to fit into 12 spots in the lineup than six, so being versatile is something I value in my game.
“(Teams) have told me that they want me to work on my first few strides and be more explosive, work on my play away from the puck and try to use my body a little bit more. They liked that I have a good stick and I try to strip pucks, and they think I’ll be even better if I use my body a little bit more.”
There are also prospects who are the offspring of NHL alumni. Nolan Foote, a left-winger from the Kelowna Rockets, is the son of longtime Colorado Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote and the brother of Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Cal Foote and has gotten sage advice from both in regards to his draft experience.
“It’s a dream come true,” Foote said. “They’ve given me a lot of advice about the draft and the combine… Cal gave me pointers about what type of questions to expect from teams and how to handle them in interviews. My dad told me to have a good time, relax and enjoy it, because you only get drafted once.”
The combine also boasted a few players who have local ties. Thomas Harley, a defenseman from Syracuse who was teammates with Elmira product John Beecher – also likely to be selected at the draft in Vancouver – rooted for the NHL team closest to his hometown.
“Growing up in Syracuse, I was a big Sabres fan,” Harley said. “I loved those black jerseys with the bison head on it. Every time I played the EA Sports NHL games, I always used Buffalo and those jerseys. I actually picked number 48 for my jersey because of Danny Briere.”
There were even some who came with a bit of risk attached to them. Vasily Podkolzin, a Russian winger who excelled at numerous international tournaments is considered by many to be talented enough to warrant a selection within the first ten picks. However, Podkolzin has two years remaining on his current contract with SKA Saint Petersburg, which could scare a few franchises away from taking him.
“Of course, I understand why teams are scared,” Podkolzin said through an interpreter. “There is that Russian factor, but I’m excited to develop over the next two years and be ready for the NHL. Playing with older men got me more accustomed to the speed and physical part of the game.”
When asked about his answering the call to play for his country three times this season (at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, World Junior Championship and U-18 World Championship), Podkolzin joked “It’s that Russian mentality, we’re all competitive like that.”
More than anything, what categorized this draft was the abundance of great talent coming up through the USNTDP. The presumptive first overall pick, Jack Hughes, and teammates Knight, Alex Turcotte and Matthew Boldy could all be selected in the first round and represent a promising influx of talent for USA Hockey in men’s international competition.
“I think USA Hockey’s the best it’s ever been right now,” Hughes said. “There’s a lot of talent coming up the pipeline right now and obviously there’s a lot of good young American players that are currently in the NHL.”
Turcotte and Boldy agreed.
“Growing up, a lot of us looked up to guys like Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Dylan Larkin and Jack Eichel. They’ve definitely paved the way for us and I think they’ve really helped grow hockey in America,” Turcotte said. “We’re only going to keep getting better, and this draft is going to prove that. We’ve got a lot of Americans who are going to get drafted, and they’re going to go pretty high. It’s just really cool to see the game growing more and more in the United States and to be one of the top countries for hockey in the world.”
“I think we’ve got a pretty high standard of what USA Hockey can be in the next few years,” Boldy concurred. “The USNTDP is probably going to have between six and eight guys go in the first round this year, and I think the success we’ve had as a group says a lot about the program. They kind of have it figured out down to a science there, and we can only improve from here on out.
“The future’s really bright for USA Hockey, that’s for sure.”