|A little prodding from his coach in prep school seemed to give Kings goalie Jonathan Quick the proper incentive to excel. (Harry How/Getty Images)|
At NHL combine, test scores subject to grade inflation
In just a few weeks, most of the NHL’s very important people will gather in Toronto. They will attend an event that is one of the more curious on the league’s calendar. One of its highlights: Some of the world’s teenage puck prodigies vomiting after an all-out sprint on a stationary bike.
That’s the NHL combine. It is one tool in the annual crap shoot in which clubs project how a prom-aged boy might someday lead his team to the Stanley Cup.
With each passing year, however, its importance can be questioned because of how well-prepared the youngsters are becoming.
The draft hopefuls will participate in team interviews. Each club devises a list of questions that are supposed to reveal insight into a teenager’s psychological makeup. One of the more popular queries: Would you take a pill that guarantees you the Cup but trims several years off your life?
Then on June 1-2, they will shuttle through a battery of physical tests. Examples include the VO2 Max bike test to measure aerobic fitness, vertical jump, and bench press.
In theory, the databases assembled on each player will serve as guides for the June 21-22 draft in Pittsburgh. It’s up to each team to determine what percentage of the combine data will be in play when making decisions.
But the combine scores are becoming inflated because experts know how to maximize performance.
Mike Boyle, one of the more respected strength and conditioning coaches in sports, has a history of preparing players for the combine. Last year, Adam Clendening, one of Boyle’s charges, was a combine standout. He hit 30 inches on the vertical jump. On the bench, he ripped off 13 repetitions at 150 pounds, tops among all participants. And he ticked through 40 pushups.
In the 2011 draft, Chicago picked Clendening with the 36th overall selection.
“We knew what to do, and we knew how to prepare him for that,’’ said Boyle.
The bench press, for example, is timed. Boyle mimics the combine’s setting by using a metronome (25 beats per minute) to set the pace. The Wingate bike test, which measures anaerobic fitness, is set at 30 seconds. Boyle will train his athletes for that specific time frame - no more, no less. Even if an 18-year-old initially can do only one repetition at 150 pounds on the bench, a month or two of training can bring him up to 10.
With all the money in play for high-end prospects, the top youngsters are being trained - whether it’s through their junior teams, college clubs, or agents - to wring the best performance out of each combine test.
It is somewhat akin to grade inflation. When each student is achieving high marks, it becomes harder for educators to spot the whizzes among the pedestrian.
It’s why Boyle, were he on the other end, would place most of his emphasis on the vertical jump. Boyle classifies this test as the combine’s most accurate indicator of explosive speed.
“It measures the ability to put force into the ground,’’ Boyle said. “Or, in hockey, to put force into the ice.’’
Through training, an 18-year-old can perform more reps or throw a medicine ball farther. But for the most part, it’s hard to improve the vertical jump, according to Boyle.
A good sprinter will most likely have a vertical jump of 30 inches or better. A natural marathoner, in contrast, will probably be in the 20s.
“You have a hard time changing your vertical jump in a month,’’ Boyle said. “It measures explosiveness, and it’s not easily manipulated.’’
Like all data, a strong score in the vertical jump doesn’t identify a future Marian Gaborik. Boyle cites a hypothetical case of a prospect who jumps 28 inches but can bench only two 150-pound reps.
“Really explosive,’’ said Boyle. “But maybe lazy on D. Maybe he’s a guy who doesn’t forecheck or backcheck. Maybe he’s a high-skill guy who doesn’t want to work out.’’
Boyle cites the example to illustrate the point of taking a panoramic look at a player instead of a snapshot. Strength coaches are maximizing physical tests. Agents are coaching the players to parrot the sought-for answers in interviews.
Success at drafting isn’t about focusing just on the combine. It’s about folding in the combine information with in-person viewings, video scouting, player and coach interviews, and all-around evaluation and projection.
And it’s still hard to get it right. Consider Dan Girardi and Joel Ward, who have been playoff heroes for the Rangers and Capitals.
Neither was drafted.
A QUICK STUDY
Ex-coach likes what he sees
After Jonathan Quick’s junior season at Avon Old Farms, his coach delivered a message the goalie wasn’t keen to hear.
Quick was among the top prep school goalies in New England. But for someone that good, he allowed too many softies. And longtime coach John Gardner was blunt in his assessment.
“The rap on him was that he had a great year, but he’d give up one bad goal a game,’’ Gardner recalled. “On several occasions, he’d let in a bad goal. I told Jon that.’’
In his senior year, Quick posted nine shutouts. After each one, he approached Gardner with the same snarky question: “Any bad goals today, Coach?’’ The answer: “Not today, Quickie.’’
“He always had a really competitive nature,’’ said Gardner, who coached Quick from 2002-05. “He hated to lose at anything. My remark about shutouts and letting in bad goals, when a competitor hears that, he wants to shut that guy up.’’
This spring, the 26-year-old native of Hamden, Conn., is submitting one of the sharpest puck-stopping performances of the playoffs for the Kings.
Los Angeles sent Vancouver and St. Louis, the Western Conference’s top two seeds, scrambling for their golf clubs. Quick was one of the main reasons.
Through two rounds, Quick is 8-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage. They are numbers that make Tim Thomas’s Conn Smythe-winning statistics from last year (1.98 GAA, .940 save percentage) seem a bit bloated.
Gardner has taken pleasure in every one of his former pupil’s saves. And he believes Quick, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, was just as important in the regular season when his teammates didn’t play up to par.
“I’m very proud of what he’s doing,’’ Gardner said. “I was really most impressed with him during the regular season. He was the reason the LA Kings were able to get into the playoffs.’’
Gardner remembers Quick being a raw goalie when he arrived as a sophomore. Three years of play in the New England Prep School Athletic Conference proved to Gardner that his goalie could star at UMass - and beyond.
Upon Quick’s departure, Gardner had a final message. The only person who can stop you, he told Quick, is you.
Now, Quick is just one round away from the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s great hockey to watch,’’ Gardner said. “They’re playing so hard all the time. It sure beats watching the damn Red Sox.’’
One they’d like to have back
If there were any decision by the previous regime that new Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin could undo, it would be the deal on June 30, 2009, that sent the rights to Ryan McDonagh to the Rangers. To acquire Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt, and Michael Busto, former GM Bob Gainey shipped off McDonagh, Chris Higgins, and Pavel Valentenko. Gomez (two goals in 2011-12) has two seasons remaining on his seven-year, $51.5 million contract. McDonagh, the 12th overall pick in the 2007 draft (yes, the Bruins could have had him), will be in line for a mammoth raise. McDonagh, 22, who is scheduled to be a restricted free agent July 1, was the Rangers’ second-best defenseman this season behind Dan Girardi. McDonagh assumed a bigger role after Marc Staal was shelved because of a concussion. McDonagh and P.K. Subban skating together in Montreal would be one of the league’s more dynamic defensive duos. The lesson: Be wary of trading young blue-line talent.
End the ‘finish’
Claude Giroux, the Flyers’ best player, was banished for Game 5 of the second-round series against New Jersey, which turned out to be his team’s final game of 2011-12. Giroux was suspended because of his Game 4 hit to the head of Dainius Zubrus. In explaining it to Philadelphia reporters, Giroux said he was trying to finish his hit. Zubrus had pushed the puck ahead and was chasing after it when Giroux came calling from his left side. Players often talk about the importance of check-finishing. But it is one of the more dangerous and needless components of the game. The puck is gone. The player who has gotten rid of it is often in a vulnerable position. This culture requires change.
Jay Beagle will reach restricted free agent status July 1. He is currently tagged with a $512,500 annual cap hit, and should be looking for at least a 100 percent raise. The former Alaska-Anchorage collegian opened eyes around the league - the Bruins bosses were among those to take notice - with his gritty defensive play in the playoffs. Washington’s No. 3 center has some elements of Chris Kelly in his game. He can win faceoffs, check top forwards, and cover up for his linemates. It’s telling that Beagle averaged more ice time in the playoffs than Alexander Semin, Washington’s second-most talented sharpshooter. If the Capitals ever let Beagle hit the market, expect the Bruins to kick the tires.
A good Read
As early as 2008, the Bruins believed a no-name Bemidji State freshman was deserving of a closer look. That July, Matt Read, who had completed his first season with the Beavers, participated in the Bruins’ development camp at Ristuccia Arena. Nearly four years later, he wrapped up a rookie season in Philadelphia that indicates a solid future. The 25-year-old had 24 goals and 23 assists in 79 games. Of the 17:03 of ice time Read averaged per game, 2:35 came on the penalty kill, indicating the trust he earned from his coaching staff. In 11 postseason games, Read added three goals and two assists. The Bruins were among the clubs recruiting Read. In retrospect, he made a wise decision by remaining at Bemidji State for four years. As a sophomore, Read and the Beavers advanced to the Frozen Four. Because he signed with the Flyers on March 23, 2011, he eluded the NHL’s entry-level system. Had he signed in 2010, Read would have had to sign a two-year, two-way contract. Instead, he got a three-year, $2.7 million one-way deal. Read will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the contract.
US is deep in net
If the league gives the green light to NHL participation in the 2014 Winter Games, the Stars & Stripes will have a bounty of riches for puck-stopping duties. Jonathan Quick, Tim Thomas, and Ryan Miller, the three Yankees in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, could be in the mix for a Sochi reunion. Other candidates include Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider, and Craig Anderson. By 2014, Miikka Kiprusoff could cede the Finnish net to Pekka Rinne. The ageless Martin Brodeur could be out of Canada’s mix. The Americans, in contrast, can rely on both stability and stardom.
Pleased to see good guy Stephen Gionta getting fourth-line shifts for the Devils in the playoffs. Through two rounds, Gionta had dressed for 12 games. Since departing Boston College in 2006, the younger brother of Brian Gionta had appeared in only 13 regular-season NHL games. Gionta has two goals and two assists while averaging 8:16 of ice time. Not bad for a guy who went to school at the wrong end of Commonwealth Avenue . . . Congratulations to former Northeastern coach Fernie Flaman. The ex-Bruin will be honored Thursday as this year’s Hobey Baker Legend of Hockey in St. Paul . . . In his postgame press conferences, Rangers coach John Tortorella has shown, through his rude answers and pained expressions, how much he loathes dealing with reporters. There are subjects Tortorella doesn’t care to discuss (strategy, how he coaches certain players). Fine. Perfectly understood. But there is no need to ooze such disrespect. You get a good snapshot of what a person is like by observing how he treats those on the lower rungs of life’s ladder. We all know you don’t get much lower than sportswriters . . . Best video clip of the week: Russian President Vladimir Putin doing the dangle. During a recent exhibition game, Putin scored a shootout goal with some backhand top-shelf sauce. No truth to the rumor that Shawn Thornton had given Putin some last-minute coaching . . . Just about a month remaining in my daughter’s first school year. Kindergarteners, I’ve noticed, are much like hockey players: good hearts, sharp elbows, missing teeth.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.