The home stretch to the 2019 NHL Draft has begun. After months of debate and mock drafts, the final stages of pre-draft analysis are taking place. The NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo is the final hurdle for many of the draft hopefuls, while others are likely to attend private combines hosted by NHL teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, in an effort to bolster their stock.
At the top end of this draft class, players such as Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, and Bowen Byram are looking to finish their standout seasons with a strong showing during the fitness testing. Hughes is projected to go first overall at the end of June, but finishing with a flourish is something every top prospect wants. In some cases, strong performance this weekend can shift the opinions of NHL clubs and result in those players being picked sooner than expected.
While the physical testing is hard enough in and of itself, there are also meetings upon meetings with NHL clubs where players are grilled on everything from how they play hockey, to being asked the strangest of questions.
“The first [interview] is always a bit tough; you’re never sure what to expect,” said Dylan Cozens when asked about the difficulty of the interviewing process. “As you get through more and more it becomes a bit easier. Every team is different, though, and you’re still not always sure of what to expect.”
“A lot of the interviews kind of run together,” said Kirby Dach. “By the time you’re done you kind of have a feel for who they like, or how they feel about you.”
“It’s a long week, with a lot of long days,” said Trevor Zegras of the US National Team Development Program. “It’s tough, but you just have to grind through it.”
Byram echoed those sentiments on the week as a whole, and spoke of the intimidation as well as the awe of meeting NHL clubs loaded with legends they grew up watching.
“This week’s been pretty good overall, meeting a ton of cool personnel from around the NHL in addition to seeing some buddies I might not have seen in a while,” the defenceman explained, whose own potential to become one of those stars in the future has him expected to go soon after Hughes and Kakko on June 21.
Dach was taken aback when he had the chance to speak with new Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman.
“It was pretty cool. You don’t always get to go face to face with an NHL legend, and it was awesome to meet him.”
For Hughes, someone who has been at the top of almost every draft list since last year, entering this entire process with confidence is key. When asked if he’d look better in New Jersey Devils red or New York Rangers blue, he didn’t hesitate to say he’d look great in either one.
It has been a non-stop process for Hughes, not getting much rest between events since his season ended and the draft season ramping into full gear.
“I flew to Toronto for the Lottery, and then after they made the picks I was getting on a flight to Europe like 40 minutes later,” he said. “I’ve been in Europe the last two months, so it has been a whirlwind, and I haven’t really had time to digest everything that’s been going on.”
For players like Cozens and Hughes, they’re telling the same story a dozen times before the week is over, but that doesn’t hold them back in what they’re trying to do here: make themselves as appealing as possible.
“Yeah, sometimes,” said Cozens with a laugh when asked if he was tired of being asked about his home territory of Yukon. “It gets brought up a lot, but it’s my story and I love to share that with people, I’m proud to be from there and to represent them.”
Hughes, like Cozens, was asked often about one thing, and that was his time over in Europe at the World Championship with Team USA.
“I’ve talked about this a lot this week, but obviously it was an unreal experience to be on the ice there, and I’ve learned some things to work on this summer,” he explained. “The biggest thing was being in a room with great guys and learning how to be a pro on a day-to-day basis.”
Above all else for these young stars, confidence is the key, both in their interviews and how they approach their plans for their next season. Cozens was not shy about his intentions, and believes he can make a real impact as soon as next year.
“I believe after this summer here I’ll be ready to make the jump to the NHL right away. I see myself as a two-way centre in the league and can play all areas to help teams a lot.”
Trevor Zegras had no problem pumping himself up, but also bolstering some of his potentially underrated teammates from the USNTDP as well.
“Playing and practising every day with guys like Jack [Hughes], Alex [Turcotte], and Cole [Caufiled], you’re pushing yourself every time you step onto the ice and practising against those guys.”
And he is not wrong; the USNTDP is one of the major development programs in the draft this year, with a large number of their squad likely to be selected in the first round. “I guess I could see how some people might see teammates as underappreciated,” said Zegras when asked if the quality of the team has diminished the attention for other players. “I don’t think we have too many close games with this group, and a lot of guys are getting touches, and I think even our so-called ‘bottom guys’ are making the most of their opportunities.”
“You dream of going first overall, not second, third, or fourth” said the US squad’s top product, Hughes. That really sums up what this week is about for these budding stars. They are here to sell themselves and their talents to make their dreams come true.