Part ii) The NHL Draft Combine: A value add or just eyewash?
The NHL Combine is held each year leading up to the Draft to give the top 100+ players worldwide an opportunity to showcase their athletic prowess in hopes of raising their draft stock. The tests performed by each player is comprehensive and includes anthropometrics (body measures), strength (grip strength, bench press, etc.), power (vertical jump, long jump, etc.), anaerobic power/fatigue (Wingate test), and aerobic power (VO2 max test). Players typically take the combine very seriously as it’s seen as an opportunity to impress front offices around the league and hopefully become a higher selection. Teams also take the Combine seriously because the long-standing belief is that off-ice athleticism is correlated to playing ability and on-ice performance.
Does it though? Let’s take a look at some of the main categories.
On-ice Acceleration, Agility, and Speed
On-ice acceleration has been examined through the lens of body fat percentage, vertical jump, and the 40-yd sprint (Bracko & George, 2001). They observed that all three of these metrics were not significantly related to on-ice acceleration, but the 40-yd sprint had a positive weak relationship (r = 0.44).
Bracko and George (2001), and Farlinger et al. (2007) related skating agility to a variety of off-ice tests including body fat percentage, vertical jump, 40-yd sprint, 30-m sprint, and broad jumps. In their results, significant relationships were found between agility and vertical jump, off-ice sprinting, and broad jumps.
Finally, on-ice skating speed has been related to body fat percentage, vertical jump, broad jump, squat jump, drop jump height, 1 repetition max leg press and the sit and reach flexibility test (Behm et al., 2005; Bracko & George, 2001; Farlinger et al., 2007). Similar to agility, the tests showing significant relationships to speed were off-ice sprints, vertical jump height, and broad jump distance. This means that if you’re short on ice-time or holding a remote scouting/combine session, sprint times and jump heights/distances will give you a pretty good idea on how fast a player will be on the ice.
Anaerobic and Aerobic Power
Anaerobic power has been difficult to successfully test on ice but Power et al. (2012) developed a repeated on-ice sprint protocol that mimics the demands of a hockey shift. This test showed strong correlations to the vertical jump (r = 0.86), Margaria-Kalamen stair test (r = 0.66) and the Wingate test (r = 0.86).
Aerobic power measured through running VO2 max testing has however shown to be greater than when measured through skating (Knous et al., 2005; Koepp & Janot, 2008). A possible explanation for this could be the boost efficient skating mechanics provide to the aerobic system. An example of this is how smooth-skating defencemen like Thomas Chabot or Erik Karlsson can log 30+ minutes per game without seemingly breaking a sweat.
The Combine and On-ice Potential/Worth
After reading all of the above, you can likely guess that the relationship between NHL Combine tests and player potential/worth is rather weak. The results of the Combine have been compared to draft entry (i.e. when a player was picked) with no significant relationships being observed (Vescovi et al., 2006). Burr et al. (2008) also compared Combine results to draft entry through a regression model and found that peak anaerobic power, anaerobic fatigue rate, and long jump were all significant predictors of where a player would be drafted. Although this model was significant, it only accounted for 10% of the variance meaning where it predicted players to go was wrong quite often. You may now be having flashbacks to 2014 where Sam Bennett struggled and failed to do a single pull-up but still went 4th overall to the Calgary Flames a few weeks later. This is the level of lack of relationship between off-ice metrics and draft entry we’re talking about.
Although the Combine results aren’t great predictors of when a player will be taken in the proceeding Draft, teams do get some additional information on players that is extremely valuable. They get to see how a player competes against his peers, how they face adversity, their grit, and determination to push themselves to their limits. These non-tangible factors are crucial to a player’s success during the mid-season grind or an extended playoff run. Ultimately, the best way to evaluate on-ice fitness and performance is through on-ice tests complemented by certain off-ice tests like max strength that simply can’t be done on-ice. In the final installment of this series, we’ll present a recommended fitness test battery that coaches can use going into the upcoming season.