Blackhawks

Dinner and a move: Blackhawks using combine to fine-tune their draft board

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Mark Kelley’s plate has been full this week. No, seriously. The guy had four dinners Thursday night, as he and much of the Blackhawks’ scouting staff speed-dated the top prospects at the NHL Draft Combine. General manager Stan Bowman had to hit the hotel gym every morning, trying to burn off all those extra meals.

“There’s an art to it,” said Kelley, the Hawks’ director of scouting. “The first dinner might just be a little salad.”

It’s all part of the endgame of the years-long scouting process. Three weeks away from the first round of the NHL Draft in Dallas, it’s time to nitpick the top picks. Kelley and his scouts have seen all these guys play countless times. They’ve chatted with them at rinks throughout North America and Europe. They’ve pored over the analytics, they’ve talked with coaches, they’ve compared notes with each other.

During Saturday’s fitness testing, they’ll find out exactly how strong the prospects’ grips are, how far they can jump, how much they can bench, even how well they can balance on one foot. But the most important evaluations of the combine happen over pasta or porterhouses, not pull-up bars. 

Acadie-Bathurst defenseman Noah Dobson fights for control of the puck during a Memorial Cup game on May 27. (AP Photo)

There are formal interviews throughout the week, but teams will take players out to dinner — often three or four at a time — to get a better sense of who they are. Bowman, for example, tends to sit back and listen during the interviews. But he leans in during dinner, engaging the players and seeing what makes them tick. Throw together a few kids who don’t know each other, see how they interact, and you might get a glimpse of how they’d adapt in a dressing room.

“What you’re trying to do is take them out of their comfort zone, and then see if they can find their comfort,” Kelley said.

Most teams interview just about all the top prospects, even Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who is a lock to go first overall to the Buffalo Sabres. But they tend to be pretty stilted affairs — “Just straight poker faces,” said possible No. 2 or 3 pick Filip Zadina — while the dinners are somewhat more exclusive.

So it was telling that touted defenseman Noah Dobson — who didn’t get to Buffalo until Wednesday because he was busy winning junior hockey’s Memorial Cup and enjoying a parade in tiny Bathurst, New Brunswick — only had dinner with two teams: the Hawks and the Red Wings, both of whom are in the market for some help on the blue line.

It would be a bit of a surprise if Dobson fell to the Hawks at
No. 8 (the Wings pick sixth), but the Hawks still want to do their due diligence in case they get lucky.

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“It’s great to get away from the stressful interview setting,” Dobson said. “It’s more casual. They get to know you as a person away from the rink and away from the interviews and stuff.”

That’s not to say the physical tests don’t matter. While it’s unlikely that elite forward Brady Tkachuk’s vertical leap (both with and without “arm swinging”) is going to greatly affect his draft positioning, it can help break a tie. Kelley’s draft board is pretty well set, but there can always be last-minute adjustments. Strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman and his staff are on hand to assess players’ physical maturity and extrapolate what they might look like in a year or two. Kelley, on the other hand, will be looking at how they handle themselves during all those physical challenges.

And that’s what the combine is about — it’s a chance to really get into the minute details of every prospect — on the ice, in the gym, and between the ears.

“With a lot of these kids, there’s not a lot of separation,” Kelley said. “So maybe what you learn in the interview room, or going out to dinner with them, or in the physical testing — maybe something jumps out that either moves them up or moves them down. Everything counts.”