Phil Kessel’s Awkward Draft Combine Adventure


Nothing good ever happens to Kessel when sitting in a folding chair.

 Today is the annual NHL Draft Combine, a day in which draft eligibile players bench press, standing high jump, and pedal hooked up to giant tubes. Ostensibly it gives scouts and GMs an opportunity to evaluate each player’s physical fitness. But it also gives them a chance to evaluate more intangible things like their "drive", "compete level", and "character". While there is definitely something to be learned from the event, I’d caution against taking too much out of what happens here. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the Combine is not the most accurate prediction of future success.

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If you’ve never read the book Future Greats and Heartbreaks by Gare Joyce I’d recommend picking it up. It follows his year long journey as a wannabe amateur scout with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He takes you through how a player goes from being a name on a prospect list to being drafted by a team. The book covers the 2006 draft and contains a lot of interesting information about a one Phillip J. Kessel. Columbus was set to draft 6th overall, Kessel was ranked anywhere from 4-10. Here are some excerpts from the book that show how Columbus valued Kessel prior to the draft:

Here is Don Boyd, then Director of Scouting for the Jackets talking about Kessel’s strengths and weaknesses:

The way Boyd & Co. see it, four Top Tens could be there at No. 6: Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, Nicklas Backstrom and Peter Mueller. Kessel. At 17, the forward starred for the U.S. team at the 2005 world juniors. He would have gone No. 2 behind Sidney Crosby in last year’s draft if he’d been eligible, but his stock has since plunged. He spent last season on the U. of Minnesota’s third line.

"Strengths?" Boyd asks.

"Speed" and "scoring" go up on the board.
Then the minuses pour out. Says Brian Bates, the Minneapolis scout who saw him the most: "I wonder about his game awareness sometimes."
"There might be some selfish play there sometimes," Boyd adds.
There were a lot of questions surrounding Kessel’s conditioning and his commitment to the gym. Columbus was also high on Brassard. This is an example of why GMs should not read read too much into the results at the combine:
Brassard knows that his best bud, Mathieu Carle, a defenseman in the Q, did 15 reps. He knows five isn’t good. He’s right. By the end of the day, his reps will stand as the low total among all skaters tested. Then he gets on the bike to demo his lung capacity, feet taped to the pedals, mouthpiece hooked to a tube. Shouts from the testing staff drown out the never-ending chatter of 100 or so scouts and execs. "Go! Come on! Go!" The suits see Brassard strain, and love it. They’ll love it even more later on: VO2, 71.6, among the best at the combine. He went harder and longer than anyone else: The test maxes out at 15 minutes, and he pedaled 10 seconds past it.
"What you get a look at here," Boyd says, "is just how willing the kids are to work on their own and what their work ethic is like."
As if on cue, Kessel comes in. He looks around nervously. A few minutes later, Kessel looks gassed on the bike, stopping at seven minutes.
In addition to watching players do push-ups and whatnot each team gets a chance to sit down with the prospects for an interview. They don’t just talk to the top picks, Columbus interviewed 109 players that year. Here is the account of their interview with Kessel:
The scouts sit through all 109 interviews, and Williams enters notes from each into a database. But no interview is more important to the Blue Jackets than Kessel’s. No prospect has more to win or lose than he does. Kessel walks into the room. The Blue Jackets are the first of 20 interviews on his schedule.
He is barely in his seat before Boyd says, "Teammates." Silence. "Do you know what I’m talking about?" "No," Kessel says. He most certainly does. Kessel has a reputation for being disliked by teammates wherever he’s played. Jack Johnson, second overall in last year’s draft, called him "a dirtbag" during one of his combine interviews. Silence. "I don’t have a problem with my teammates." More silence. "I don’t have a problem with Jack Johnson." More silence. "I had lunch with him practically every day."
What about that TV report about that bar serving underage Gophers? "Happens everywhere," Kessel says. Only 18 goals last season when you were compared to Sidney Crosby the year before? "I was on the third line … we rolled four lines." Kessel’s time is up. He leaves, seemingly aware that his was a less-than-stellar performance. Boyd is unfazed. "Helluva talent," he says to no one in particular.
With the benefit of hindsight we can see that just because a player has a poor showing at the combine and has a less than perfect interview, it does not necessarily mean anything about their ability to play hockey. GMs should not let what transpires this weekend take precedence over a year or more worth of scouting. 
People should also be much nicer to Phil Kessel, he rules.

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 These excerpts were posted as a story on ESPN’s website, you can read the whole thing here.  

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  • Victor

    Another good book, but different sport is The Draft by Pete Williams. There is a whole section devoted to the NFL Combine and the cottage industry that has been developed around the NFL combine and getting players prepared for it.

  • Also, this part rules.

    “What about that TV report about that bar serving underage Gophers? “Happens everywhere,” Kessel says. Only 18 goals last season when you were compared to Sidney Crosby the year before? “I was on the third line … we rolled four lines.”

    Straight up.

  • BCapp

    I get confused by this:

    “He spent last season on the U. of Minnesota’s third line.”

    In the year before his draft (his only year at U of Minnesota) he had 18 goals and 51 points in 39 GP. That was on the third line? Above 0.4 GPG and about 1.4 PPG?

  • cheesewhiz

    I personally think the supposed character issues surrounding Kessel are a result of a few different unfair/inaccurate factors coming into play. I think most of the bad rep he gets is because he’s shy and reserved, but since when do we care so much about the ‘ lovability ‘ of our players ? As long as he’s right around that 80 pt mark come end of the season, I could care less how he rubs off on people.

    I happen to think the opposite in regards to his character. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t really hear a whole lot about how he had the unenviable task of having to fight and battle through cancer. It seems we only hear about him when the message is, conveniently, negative. I’m not trying to compare something as serious as cancer to a sport for the record. But it’s not completely unrelated. The fact that he had the drive to continue on after such a serious set back, along with continuing to improve while surrounded with a sub-par line up, speaks volumes to me about his character, skill and work ethic and puts to rest any notions of him having character issues. In my mind at least.

    Oh and lastly, who the %$!* cares about what Columbus has to say about him, or any player for that matter ? Last time I checked, asides from drafting Nash at #1 which was a given, Columbus doesn’t have the strongest track record of drafting now do they ?

  • cheesewhiz

    A lot of the stuff they test at the combine is an absolute joke. The NHL is in the dark ages w/r/t S&C. I agree with the caution about reading too much into the results, but disagree with the reasons.

    Having pushups in there is just a waste of time. The push/pull harness thing is stupid, I mean seriously, look at the thing. Also, why have it when you test the bench press? And pullups or rows are a better method of testing upper body pulling strength. That gotdamn thing’s only purpose is to make some professor look like he’s cutting edge. Strength is strength, and you don’t need a bizarre tool to test it. A simple barbell works perfectly.

    Sit and reach? lol.

    The long and vertical jump tests are good and can tell you who the genetic freaks are w/r/t explosiveness. Combine that with a measure of absolute lower body strength (squats or DL’s), and you get a better idea of who has room to improve there (high explosiveness + weak strength = potential for improvement, low explosiveness + high strength = not much room for improvement).

    The most glaring admission is the lack of a lower body strength test. I’d go with the deadlift because the squat is too easily butchered, especially since about 1% of hockey players actually know how to do the basic lifts with passable form. You can’t cheat a deadlift.

    And they really need to test specific skills on the ice. Some kind of short sprint, and another non straight-ahead skating drill, speed and accuracy of 1-2 types of shots, etc.

    If I were to structure the physical testing, I’d put the skills first, then absolute strength tests, then the endurance tests all on different days. And you could slot the interviews and whatnot in between the physical testing to give the boys time to recover.