Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney said he is missing numerous opportunities to evaluate potential draft picks because of the shutdown of sports forced by the coronavirus pandemic. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The NHL draft, even more than its counterparts in the NFL and NBA, is a crapshoot.

Teams choose undeveloped teenagers with the hopes that all the homework they’ve done on a particular player – the workouts, the interviews, the reference checking – will tell them exactly who that player will be seven or eight years down the road when he hits his prime.

Needless to say, there are some misses. That’s inevitable.

But this year’s draft, whenever the league chooses to hold it, has the potential to be an even more pronounced wild card. Because of the coronavirus shutdown, the annual scouting combine in Buffalo, where teams put over 100 NHL hopefuls through paces both physical and mental, has been canceled. The in-person draft itself, when teams get one more crack at interviewing players and which had been scheduled to take place this year in Montreal’s Bell Centre, is also not happening.

Just when the draft – expected to be conducted remotely like the NFL draft was last month – will take place is still being debated. The league had wanted to hold it in June, before any semblance of the season’s conclusion could take place, but that idea has gotten significant pushback from some teams. If such a scenario unfolded, the Bruins, by virtue of their perch atop the standings when play was paused, would be picking last. Picking 31st is more than palatable if your team just won the Stanley Cup to earn that spot, not so much when you have nothing to show for it.

But no matter when the draft is going to be held, this year’s grab will present challenges like no other.


“The normal course of your calendar is disrupted,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney last week. “You have late-season viewings, you have playoff stretches, the U-18s is always an important tournament at the end of the year, so yeah, you’re short viewings. Some players have been injured and they’re trying to return to play, and now you don’t have a great idea of where they’re at and where their development is over the course of the year. So you’ve got some projections involved.”

Take the case of Hendrix Lapierre. The center from Chicoutimi of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was on course to be a high first-round pick. Coming off a season in which he posted 45 points in 48 games, the 6-foot, 180-pound Lapierre was Team Canada’s leading scorer (3 goals, 7 assists in five games) in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the international tournament held in August that is a kind of kickoff to the scouting season.

Lapierre, however, was limited to just 19 games in the Q this season because of what was thought to be concussions but was later diagnosed as cervical issues, according to his representative, Kent Hughes, who has represented several clients with concussion and/or cervical issues such as Patrice Bergeron, Matthew Lombardi and Ryan Clowe. Hughes said he took Lapierre to visit with renowned therapist Dan Dyrek in Florida, and it was determined that he had suffered a cervical injury the prior season that had not healed.

Whenever he got hit, it would trigger concussion symptoms.

With the new diagnosis, Lapierre was eventually able to get back onto the ice with his team and was nearing a return, hopefully ready to put his health issues in the rearview mirror. Then the world as we knew it stopped when the coronavirus outbreak shut down sports leagues throughout the globe.

“I think it hurts, of course,” said Hughes. “It’ll take an awfully confident team who believes so strongly in the player for him to be a top-10 pick. And I think he was a shoo-in top 10 before. He was the top pick in the Quebec league, he had a great (2018-19) season, he led Team Canada in scoring at the Hlinka tournament. He was set up to really push here. Now, I don’t know. He’s not getting out of the first round, but if he had returned to play with the medical diagnosis that he has, if he had done well, if Chicoutimi had gone to the Memorial Cup and he continued to perform, everything that happened before would have been cast aside and he could have been whatever he could be, a top-5 pick.”


When players are chosen on draft day, they’re often told that their draft slot is just a number and doesn’t matter anymore. What a player accomplishes from there on out is up to the player. That’s mostly true, but not completely.

“I feel like if you’re a top 5 pick, you have nine lives,” said Hughes. “I think Ben Pouliot (who played for seven NHL teams, including the Bruins) was a great example of that, where he was really slow to mature and be ready to be an effective NHL player. But he kept getting chances because he was the fourth overall pick. If he was a similar player (picked lower), he would have been discarded pretty quickly.”

A good playoff run could make a big difference for “a late bounce” player, said Kirk Luedeke, assistant GM of the USHL’s Omaha Lancers who was a long-time talent evaluator for the Red Line Report, a scouting service.

“An example of that I’ll give you is Taylor Hall,” said Luedeke. “When the major junior playoffs started in 2010, Hall and Tyler Seguin were neck and neck. But Hall went all the way to the Memorial Cup and a lot of people felt that pushed him over the top for first overall selection versus Seguin, whose OHL team (Plymouth) was one-and-done. So NHL teams don’t have those extended playoffs and series to look at. That’s a bit of challenge.

“But for the most part, teams had a chance to get their list together and scout the players. They just had to change their methodology.”

So it’s incumbent on teams, who in a sense are working with one hand tied behind their backs, to do as much homework as they can.


“You’ve got 18-, 19-year-olds in general that you have to speculate on,” said Sweeney. “The combine gives you another layer. The shift has gone in a couple of different areas. A lot more video, which is a complement to the process. Through the phone you do a lot of back-checking, whether that’s through coaches, general managers, billet families, all of whom know these players and interact with them. You’re looking to get a feel of how other people would describe them like you would in a combine interview when they’re describing themselves. You go back over the questionnaires you compile during the course of the season. You’re just trying to piece all the things together.”

Sweeney’s scouts have been in overdrive since the pause occurred. Today’s technology certainly helps. They’ve been meeting regularly through Microsoft Teams, in smaller groups and as a whole.

“Some of it has actually been good,” said Sweeney. “You get into these small groups and people argue and they’re lobbying for players they believe in and they’ve known and done some extra work on, trying to get to know a player through some video work and other communications.”

But while tools like Zoom have been instrumental in helping a lot of businesses function during the pandemic, one can’t help but believe that something will be lost in the player interview process. It’s hard to see a player nervously tapping his foot or a streak of sweat building up on his back if you’re not in the same room with him.

“There’s going to be a gap in the evaluation process,” said Sweeney.

The lack of physical testing that occurs at the combine is another hurdle. How much weight is put on that part of the evaluation varies from team-to-team. But prior to the lockdown, the Arizona Coyotes have come under investigation for allegedly putting prospects through some sort of physical testing prior to the combine, which is now against the league rules. The club could get hit with some hefty fines – $250,000 per incident – if found guilty. If a team is willing to push the envelope like that, clearly it gives you an idea of how much physical testing matters to some teams.

Sweeney said that a player’s performance at the physical testing portion of the combine may not be the stand-alone determining factor in choosing a player, but it is a piece of the puzzle.

“It adds another layer. And you can see how hard a kid will dig in in certain situations. Those things add some context to it,” said Sweeney.

But, in these most unusual of times, it’s just another element that Sweeney and his brethren will have to manage without.

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