NHL Combine Scores: The Most Overrated Stat in Hockey

Much ado has recently been made over top-rated NHL prospect Sam Bennett (OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs star forward) and his failure to complete a chin-up at the 2014 NHL Draft Combine. Some people shake their head and say: “Oh, he’s not going to be able to play in the NHL. Too weak. You gotta be big and strong to play with the big boys.” I’ve also heard: “What an embarrassment. The kid is so cocky he doesn’t even train. I wouldn’t want a lazy kid with no drive on my team.”

Does Bennett deserve the criticism for failing to do a chin-up? The answer is an emphatic NO.

There are two main reasons why Sam Bennett not being able to a chin-up should have no effect whatsoever on what slot he gets drafted in and the rest of his career:

1.  The Potential for Improvement

A 17-year-old kid who dominated one of the best junior leagues in the world that can’t perform a single chin-up, should actually make NHL GM’s eyes light up. Unlike a player like Aaron Ekblad, who already looks like a 40-year-old, grizzled vet and probably doesn’t need to bring his I.D. to the liquor store, Bennett presents an immense raw talent that has the potential to get that much better (from a physical standpoint). As strong as Bennett already is on the puck and the mean streak and edge he already plays with, just think about how much more of a force he’ll be when he physically matures.

The NHL draft is essentially a guessing game. Teams are selecting players on projection. At 17 and 18, most of the players that are selected in the draft will need 1 – 2 years of additional seasoning in junior, along with 1 – 3 years of apprenticeship in the minors. With the exception of players like Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros—who both could have played in the NHL at 17—the draft is about selecting players on a projection of what they could become. Mostly, teams are not selecting players they expect to step in and lead their team from day 1. They are selecting players with the vision that in 3 – 4 years, that player will develop into an impact NHL performer.

  1. Combine Testing is Misleading and False Indicator of Value

Does the fact that Sam Bennett can’t do a chin-up mean that he can’t compete in the NHL? If the answer to that question for you is yes, then Mario Lemieux never would have won the 1984-85 NHL Rookie of the Year award, on route to a 100-point season. If the answer to that question was yes, Wayne Gretzky never would have played a single game in the NHL.

Yes, Lemieux and Gretzky are exceptional talents and maybe it’s not fair to generalize that you don’t need to be strong to play in the NHL, but what these examples do tell us is that the biggest priority in hockey isn’t strength. In fact, that’s what makes hockey so great. It’s the beautiful mosaic of intelligence, elusiveness and finesse that sets the game apart from all of the other “hard-nosed” sports. It’s the fact that a player like Mario Lemieux, who used to smoke a pack a day along with a diet of cheeseburgers and fries, could go out and perform like a man amongst boys.

Don’t get me wrong, training is certainly important—especially in today’s game where players are better conditioned than ever before. That being said, being able to lift a house over your head isn’t going to make you a better player.

When I was coming through the junior ranks, the NCAA and the minors, there was a universal obsession with size and strength in hockey. I was always one of those players who had a hard time putting and keeping weight on. Every coach, scout and average Joe would tell me that I wasn’t big enough to succeed in hockey and I’d need to get bigger and stronger.

So every summer I would take Creatine, drink protein shakes like nobody’s business and lift weights until I couldn’t move, all in the name of “getting bigger and stronger.” Each year I would go into pre-season fitness testing and try and push my name up the leaderboard, hoping that I would impress my coaches, increasing my role and playing time.

At the end of the day, did it make me a better player? No. In fact, it actually worked against me.

In my first year in the minors, I went into camp with the body of Zeus. I was 6 foot 1, 205 pounds with 8% body fat. I was a beast! During fitness testing I finished near the leaders in the bench press test (we had to keep pace with a cadence meter and bench press our body weight as many times as we could), first in the vertical jump test, second in the long-jump test and third in the deadlift test (oh, and I was able to rip out quite a few chin ups).

At the end of the testing, my name was in the top 3 out of 50 camp attendees. I was pretty damn proud of myself. Coaches patted me on the back and said, “Good job.” I went to bed that night dreaming of all the power play minutes I’d be racking up and thinking about whether it would be 2 or 3 weeks before I got called up. I was finally “bigger and stronger” and I couldn’t wait for all the great things to start happening in my career.

Fast forward two weeks.

After a sluggish, uninspiring camp that saw me get shifted from defence to forward (which is usually a bad omen in training camp), I was standing in the coach’s office getting the “You worked hard but it just comes down to the numbers game right now, kid” speech. Later that day I was packing my bags and looking for another opportunity.

The reason I shit the bed in camp was because I was too big and bulky. Adding the muscle weight to be able to rip out wide-grip pull-ups and bench press a house had taken away from my speed and quickness. I had done what everyone had said to do. I got bigger and stronger. I led the damn fitness testing in overall scoring, for Chrissakes!

That season, I ended up signing with a team in Europe and after a couple more months, my playing weight was down from 205 to 190. I was quicker, more flexible and a lot more dynamic.

The valuable lesson I learned was that I would never listen to the blowhards again about how much I should weigh or how much I should be able to bench press. Strength in hockey can’t be isolated and measured like it can in other sports like football, baseball or basketball—where you can time how fast a player can run or how high they can jump to catch a pass or throw down a dunk. In hockey, the strength to protect the puck and win battles has more to do with balance, positioning, intelligence and competitiveness. The guy who can bench press the most doesn’t have the hardest shot and the guy who can do the most chin-ups isn’t the hardest body checker.

So my message to Sam Bennett is to forget the chin-up and keep your chin up, because you’ve got an exciting career ahead of you, no matter what the pundits say.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

4 thoughts on “NHL Combine Scores: The Most Overrated Stat in Hockey

  1. Great post. Fortunately, It seems like the old dinosaur mentality of drafting linesmen is dissipating. And thankfully the hockey is improving.

  2. Focus on fast twitch muscle. I find it hard to beleive that your one of the top vert and long jump with a good deadlift and that caused you to be slower?? That defies all logic

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