Prospects must make the grades

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:59 AM ET

TORONTO - They walked in and out of a suburban rink on Tuesday with hockey bags over their shoulders and sticks in hands, like thousands of other Canadian teenagers do each day.

They were there for a morning skate, 40 of the top prospects for this June’s NHL entry draft, but one that could ultimately end up being as important as many of the games they have played in their young careers.

There will be a greater point of evidence on Wednesday’s prospects game, where 20 will skate for Team Orr and 20 for Team Cherry, and it may appear that there are more scouts in the Air Canada Centre than hockey fans.

But with so much being invested in both the discovery and development of young talent, hockey scouting is becoming more high tech, which was the point of Tuesday’s exercises.

Enter Next Testing, a Toronto and Wisconsin-based company that is helping propel talent evaluation to a level it hasn’t necessarily seen in this sport.

While the NFL has long poked and prodded and attached numbers to every name, hockey is steadily increased the importance in quantifiable evaluation it places on its prospects.

On Tuesday, players were timed in 14 different drills during a morning session at the MasterCard Centre. Before they play in the prospects game on Wednesday, every scout who wants it will have the data from those tests in their hands hoping that with it they have another piece of the puzzle necessary to make a smart pick on draft day.

“I think it’s getting there,” Ward Hillegas, Next Testing’s vice president of business development, said of testing moving into the realm of the NFL. “More and more of the testing and evaluating has become scientific based.

“Times are progressing and the more it becomes in the forefront, the more everyone wants to be a part of it.”

If there was any inclination to take Tuesday’s tests less than seriously, the prospects would have changed that attitude as soon as they hit the ice and saw the seats full of NHL scouts.

The first year Next Testing began working with the Canadian Hockey League four years ago, they could hardly attract an NHL scout for the session. Four years later, every team was represented this year.

Old-school scouts may get more out of what they see in a game situation on Wednesday night, but the deeper the information flow, the better.

“It’s getting more innovative every year and it’s just another tool we have,” Leafs director of amateur scouting Dave Morrison said.

“One kid in particular, I went into it thinking he wasn’t that fast but he did quite well on some of the tests. It made me feel a little better about my opinion to him.”

By now, most of the prospects participating know what’s at stake with every move they make this week. The players that are invited, after all, are in direct response to a survey the CHL sends to each team in the NHL.

The best part of the process is that it helps both players and their potential employers. With the data they receive, players can work in the off-season on improving while the scouts can use the numbers to help adjust their draft board as the big day approaches.

“The players can sit down with their strength and conditioning coaches and their personal trainers and work on specific things,” Hillegas said. “With the (NHL GMs and scouts), we will sit down with them tomorrow and go through the data and answer any questions. But as the draft gets closer, we’ll get phone calls back for us to explain in greater detail what the numbers mean and how they compare to their observations.

“These guys (scouts) are travelling all over the world to watch prospects and now you can bring your top 40 players in and watch them in a testing situation. You can tell by the response (Tuesday) that they see the value.”


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