June 2, 2011

NHL draft prospects do interview circuit at combine

by Kirk Luedeke

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (photo: Getty)

TORONTO -- The top prospects for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft gathered at the Westin Bristol Hotel Thursday for a final day of interviews before the two-day physical testing process.

Once all of their scheduled meetings with NHL teams were complete, it was time for the big names for the draft to meet with media in attendance. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Gabriel Landeskog, Sean Couturier, Dougie Hamilton and Jonathan Huberdeau all took their turns fielding a wide range of questions that mostly dealt with their respective experiences at the combine to date.

“It’s been great so far,” Nugent-Hopkins said, when asked about his impressions of the event. “I met with a lot of teams that I haven’t met yet, so it’s been a great experience for me so far.”

Like all of the players surveyed, the Red Deer Rebels star confirmed that he had been asked by teams if he thinks he is ready to play in the NHL next season.

“I think that I am ready to play,” he said. “I think I’ve taken some big strides this year. I’ve put on five pounds since the end of the season, and I feel like I can put five or 10 more pounds on. I think if I do I’ll be ready to make the jump.”

Nugent-Hopkins acknowledged the many questions about his slight frame and playing weight of closer to 160 pounds and pledged that adding mass would be a focus for him this offseason.

One prospect who doesn’t require much beefing up is a Swedish power forward who left Scandinavia two years ago for the rugged play and long schedule of major junior in North America. After a solid rookie campaign last season, Landeskog opened a lot of eyes with 36 goals and a physical brand of hockey that saw him emerge as a force.

“I think I’m pretty happy with the way I started the year,” Landeskog said. “I think I had a pretty good first half leading up to the world juniors, obviously, with injury wasn’t too great. But the first half is probably something I carry with me.”

Landeskog may not have the high-end skill of a Nugent-Hopkins or Couturier, or even Huberdeau, but he’s the complete package: He’ll hit, fight and do anything to help his team win. His skill level and upside is probably underrated when you get down to it. Also working in his favor: Landeskog is a natural leader who this season became the first-ever European captain of the storied Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.

“It’s something I’m really proud of,” he said. “It’s something that not a lot of people get to enjoy and to experience and so I think it’s something I’m really proud of and I’m just going to take that as a compliment to me as a person and as a player, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Landeskog’s countryman and defenseman Larsson doesn’t quite have the forward’s command of the English language, but seemed confident that his interactions with the clubs he interviewed with were productive.

The 18-year-old who had long been rumored as a favorite to be the top overall selection in the draft after bursting onto the scene a year ago with a standout performance in his country’s top pro league, came down to earth a bit but is still considered by most to be the top defenseman available in the 2011 class.

Larsson admitted that he’d given some thought to being the first overall selection, but kept things in perspective when asked about his thoughts on the matter.

“Of course it would be a big deal,” Couturier said when asked how important an honor it would be. “But I won’t be disappointed if I’m not.”

Couturier, like Larsson, was once thought to be a candidate to go first overall in the draft and, while the public perception is that his stock has slipped a bit, the QMJHL standout has embraced the opportunity to sit down with teams and make his case.

“I just stay the same way I always am,” Couturier said. “For sure you’re here to prove them to try to pick you but to me it’s (to) just try to be yourself. They saw us enough as a hockey player and now they just want to know us as a person.”

Hamilton genuinely seemed to enjoy his whirlwind days consisting of interviews with 18 of 30 teams, which will culminate with his fitness testing on Friday.

“It’s been pretty special,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never really been through something like this, but it’s been fun I think pretty much everyone will tell you it’s (a) kind of tiring experience.”

One player who raised his stock perhaps more than any other is Huberdeau, who led the Saint John Sea Dogs to the 2011 Memorial Cup championship while earning MVP honors in the process. For a player who is still a few days from turning 18, it was a remarkable playoff performance by a gifted prospect playing on a deep and experienced team.

“I think I did what I have to do on the ice,” said Huberdeau, when asked if he saw the combine as an opportunity to raise his profile even more. “Now it’s for the teams to decide where I’m going to go. I cannot do anything (else); I don’t know where I’m going to go.”

All are expected to go within the top-10 selections at the draft which will be held in St. Paul, Minn., in a few weeks. While one can debate how much a player can help or possibly hurt his status at the combine, the event allows teams to bring together the top talent for one final evaluation before potentially franchise-shaping decisions are made.

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com.