- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - The NHL scouting combine’s move out of a convention center and into an actual hockey facility has prompted a discussion of what the next step might be in its evolution beyond bench-presses and stationary bikes.

What about on-ice testing?

“I’ve always wanted to have that element,” Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said as the weeklong combine came to a close in Buffalo on Saturday. “This is all great. These guys can be as impressive or not impressive as whatever. But they can’t play if they can’t skate.”

Kekalainen spoke while sitting in the stands of the Sabres’ new HarborCenter hockey/entertainment complex. That’s where the league’s top 120 draft-eligible prospects were put through a series of physical tests on the concrete floor of one of the facility’s two rinks.

The prospects were measured on height and wing-span, did long jumps and verticals, pull-ups, bench presses and tested on their agility and balance. The 45-minute session ended with an endurance test on a stationary bike.

Hockey players, however, are also measured on skates.

“Our head scout Ville Siren here, he played with Mario Lemieux, who couldn’t bench-press 155 pounds once,” Kekalainen said, before breaking into a smile. “And he turned out OK.”

The on-ice discussion is gaining steam with the combine’s shift to Buffalo after spending its first 20-plus years being held inside carpeted convention center and hotel ballrooms in suburban Toronto.

The previous sites made it unfeasible for a skating component. General managers and scouts also balked at skating tests by saying they provided an unfair advantage between prospects whose seasons ended later than others.

Arizona Coyotes assistant general manager Darcy Regier disputed that argument, by noting prospects already have to be in shape to do the current physical tests no matter when their seasons end.

“So as long as you have that understanding and build that in, there’s value,” Regier said, referring to on-ice testing. “I would certainly be in favor of it.”

Regier conducted on-ice tests in his previous job as Sabres general manager. After attending the combine in Toronto, the Sabres would invite a select group of prospects back to Buffalo to work them out on the ice.

That practice was banned after the NHL ruled it provided the Sabres an unfair advantage because it was not feasible for every team to host such an event.

Newly hired New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero is on the fence, saying he wants to be presented with a proposal of how the on-ice tests would be conducted, and what they would include.

“I’m open to it, but right now, I’m not saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to have that next year,’” Shero said. “I want to know why and what we’re going to accomplish from it.”

Any changes to the combine would have to be approved by the league’s 30 general managers. The Sabres, who also host the combine next year, are campaigning for on-ice testing, and hope to present it to the GMs at their next meeting later this month.

NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said physical test results only provide a small glimpse, and play a secondary role to teams getting an opportunity to conduct one-on-one interviews with the prospects.

“I don’t know if these scores are going to make a big impact,” Marr said. “I can’t really tell you of a case where the testing has caused a team to not want to draft a player at the top of the draft.”

During Saturday’s‘ session, most eyes were focused on centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, who are projected to be selected first and second in the draft on June 26.

McDavid, the Canadian Junior Hockey player of the year, provided a small scare when he slipped and slid to the floor during a running-agility test.

The Erie Otters player finished third in the anaerobic fitness test, and in the top 10 in each of the hand-grip strength tests.

Eichel, who plays a more physical style, dominated several tests. The Boston University freshman was first with a 26.18-inch vertical and tied for first with a 115-inch long jump.

Eichel would have preferred a chance to skate.

“I mean, we play the game on ice, it makes sense,” Eichel said, noting that the NFL combine includes on-field skill testing. “It wouldn’t surprise me if that was in the future.”

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