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NHL Combine Blog: Meeting the Prospects

Thursday, 05.31.2012 / 8:22 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
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NHL Combine Blog: Meeting the Prospects
Looks like the hotel recycled last year's sign.

Since the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh are hosting the 2012 NHL Draft at CONSOL Energy Center on June 22-23, our dedicated web staff drove to Toronto yesterday to cover the NHL Combine and meet the top prospects that will be heading to our city in just a few weeks.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the NHL Combine, it’s basically the prospects’ last chance to make an impression on all 30 NHL teams. There’s no on-ice activity. Instead, the teams can sit down with as many of the prospects as they want for approximately 20-minute long interviews. They also review medical reports by independent doctors, and evaluate the players as they go through a series of rigorous fitness tests.

That fitness testing will be Friday and Saturday, so we’ll have plenty of photos and interviews with the players starting tomorrow about the grueling grind they’ll be put through. We’ll also check in with members of Penguins management that are here in Toronto. But right now, I want to talk about today’s media availability. Because from our perspective, the Combine is a chance to get to know these young kids before they’re selected by their respective NHL teams. And today, a small sampling of those players provided us with some great insight into their personalities.

TODAY’S MEDIA AVAILABILITY

We got to meet a few select prospects during an hour-long media availability on Thursday at their hotel. Nail Yakupov, Filip Forsberg, Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan Murray, Mikhail Grigorenko and Malcolm Subban (brother of Canadiens defenseman P.K.) were the lucky ones who spoke to us this evening.

I was all over the map with my questions because I had so many. I covered Forsberg, Galchenyuk, Murray and Grigorenko while my colleague Mark Cottington of PensTV had to get the other two since they entered the room in pairs (props to Mark for shooting and holding the mic at the same time).

What most of us were especially curious about were their interviews with NHL teams, which began Monday and ended today. Pens assistant GM Jason Botterill told me those meetings with the players are the most important part of this whole process.

And what I discovered tonight is that all of the prospects, each snappily dressed in suits and ties, took the interviews very seriously.

“I think (the process) is very important, actually, because if you’re not making a good impression, maybe they won’t draft you,” Forsberg said. “So I’m trying to be as nice as possible. I’m a good player. I’m trying to show that I’m a good person, too.”

“I wanted to make sure that they know what kind of person I am and just what kind of character I have,” added Galchenyuk. “Teams see me on the ice and know what kind of player I am, but they want to hear from me what kind of person and player I am.”

They all seemed very mature, very focused and very committed to becoming NHL players. I was very impressed with the way these players seem to be conducting themselves.

(Quick note: Forsberg – no relation to former NHL star Peter – speaks impeccable English even though he plays in Sweden. He told me kids in Sweden are taught English from a young age, and he just worked hard to master it).


From L to R: Galchenyuk, Forsberg, Subban, Yakupov, Grigorenko and Murray. Photo courtesy of the @NHL Instagram account.

MOST INTRIGUING PROSPECT?

After the Penguins’ season ended, I started studying up on these guys so I’d be prepared for all the interviews we’d be doing here at the Combine. And of all the players I read about, Alex Galchenyuk intrigued me the most.

He was born in Wisconsin while his Russian dad, Alex Sr., played for the Milwaukee Admirals, and has chosen to compete for the United States internationally. But his perfect English is spoken with a thick Russian accent (he also knows Italian), and he’s lived overseas in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Russia.

Galchenyuk is considered one of the draft’s wild cards because of the knee injury he suffered in a 2011-12 preseason game. A torn ACL limited him to all but two regular-season games and six playoff games for the Sarnia Sting (Ontario Hockey League). But before Galchenyuk was sidelined with the same injury that Evgeni Malkin suffered last summer, scouts considered him a potential No. 1-overall pick in the draft. He ranked second in rookie scoring behind teammate Yakupov in 2010-11 with 83 points (31G-52A).

So this Combine is especially important for Galchenyuk with the limited viewings of him this past season. And he’s taking it very seriously. He thoroughly impressed me with the way he conducted himself during availability. I’ve spoken to many prospects in my time with the Pens, but this young man definitely resonated with me as one of the best. He’s very charismatic, obviously cherishes playing the game and just seems to have a good head on his shoulders.

PERSONALITY PLUS

Speaking of charismatic…

I know Yakupov is widely regarded to be the best offensive talent in this draft and is considered to be the consensus No. 1-overall pick. Simply put, he’s got mad skill. But I had also heard he’s got an infectious personality. And I saw glimpses of that Thursday.

The best moment came when he had to pause his interview and take a moment to wipe the sweat off his forehead that had gathered under the bright lights of the many cameras surrounding him. He did it while laughing the entire time.

My favorite quote from his scrum that lasted eight-plus minutes came right after, when someone asked him whether it was important for him to try and sell his personality to the NHL clubs he met with. His answer:

“You’ve got to smile every day because you just live once. You’ve got to push everything you can every day and be nice with people, with the guys, with your friends. Keep your family in your heart and if you can play hockey, just play hockey.”

He reminds me a lot of his countryman Evgeni Malkin. ‘Geno’ gave me a similar quote last season that always stuck in my mind:

“We have one life. It doesn’t matter what we do, if we play hockey or work in the factory. We just have one life and we need to enjoy life. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. Last year I had a big injury. It doesn’t matter. It’s all done now and I need to enjoy life and smile.”


Nail Yakupov swarmed by the media.

TWITTER STARS

Social media has become an integral part of my job duties with the Penguins. Our organization constantly trying to come up with ways to embrace social media and use it as a tool to connect with fans..

But perhaps most importantly, it’s really an incredible way for professional athletes to interact directly with fans. And what’s awesome about these prospects is that they’re all embracing it, because it’s just something that’s been engrained in their culture growing up.

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve got to follow these guys. The handles that the NHL's official Twitter is spotlighting today and tomorrow are Alex Galchenyuk (@AGally94), Jacob Trouba (@JacobTrouba) and Morgan Rielly (@mriles4).

     "We're following top prospects @AGally94 @JacobTrouba @mriles4 at #NHLCombine today and tomorrow. Tweet them"

                                                           @NHL

But honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if all 105 of this year's Combine invitees are on Twitter. I keep discovering more and more. They're taking over. It's really cool.

The three boys that the NHL's following these next couple days have been tweeting away about their experiences – providing a lot of awesome insight – at the Combine so far. If they keep this up, people like me will be out of a job. Here's some examples of what they're sharing with their followers...

     "I met 22 teams over 3 days of interviews and it was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life #NHLcombine"
                                                           @Agally94

     "@28flyersfan toughest question..."what is success?" asked by Boston. That one caught me off guard and made me think for a bit."
                                                           @JacobTrouba

     "Just met with the @BlueJacketsNHL. Had a nice conversation about @JackJohnson3. #rolemodel #GoBlue"
                                                          
                                                           @JacobTrouba

     "Another big day at the #nhlcombine. Big dinner then gunna listen to @SKoekkoek try to convince himself he wants to go to bed early #yaright"
                                                           @mriles4

LOOKING AHEAD…

As I mentioned earlier, the interviews began Monday and ended today. The fitness testing portion of the Combine will be held Friday and Saturday. That means we’re just a day away from the most infamous part of the fitness evaluations: the bike tests!

There's the Wingate Cycle Ergometer, which measures a player's power output during a 30-second burst, and the VO2 Max test, which measures a player's endurance and aerobic fitness. One comes right after the other, with just a short interval for recovery.

The players dread doing these because they’re just so ridiculously strenuous. It doesn’t help that they hear about the horrors that await them from teammates or friends that have gone through them before.

“I’ve heard some horror stories about it, yeah,” Murray said. “I’m going to go into it with an open mind and hopefully I don’t puke.”

Even if you do, Ryan, we won’t tell.

There are 11 other tests designed to evaluate the strength and fitness of the prospects. They're set up in stations and line the perimeter of the room. It's a cool setup and I'll have plenty of pictures for you guys at some point tomorrow. The festivities will be going on from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Long day).

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton strength and conditioning coach Joe Lorincz will be evaluating the players that our organization is monitoring. We'll definitely talk to him about the fitness testing and why it's important to a prospect's draft stock. I'll post a blog tomorrow evening detailing the day's experiences.

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