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NHL Combine Notebook: 2022 setting up to be an unpredictable draft

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For the first time in three years, draft eligible prospects gathered in Buffalo for the NHL Combine, a key event in wrapping up the scouting season. It offers teams a chance to gather and have an opportunity to meet with the players face-to-face, while providing an abundance of physical testing data that can then be dissected before compiling the final draft lists. 

Further, because all teams are present, the Combine provides a more informal setting to lay the groundwork for future trades. The event also provides a forum for prospects to get to know one another. Finally, it gives prospects a taste of the NHL as the first step in the lifelong dream to get drafted. 

Here are a few takeaways from my time in Buffalo. 

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Three-Horse Race

The main takeaway from the Combine is that the conversation for first overall is no longer just about Shane Wright. Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley are legit contenders and if you ask Cutter Gauthier, he would say the list should include his name as well.

Anything Can Happen

Just about every scout or executive I spoke to feels this draft will be as unpredictable as any they’ve ever seen. Typically, we start to see the draft splatter after the first 10-15 picks, but that splatter will start well inside the top 10 of this draft. The effects of the pandemic will once again wreak havoc on this class.  

Action Plan

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Informally canvassing some GMs and scouts, the general consensus is that the in-person draft will make for more action on draft day. It’s much easier to walk over to another GM’s table than it is to try and text, or conference a GM to initiate discussion while the clock is ticking. 

Two Worth Watching

1. Brad Lambert: A top 10 talent who struggled to produce numbers on two different Finnish Liiga teams, Lambert lit it up for two games at the world juniors and has a decent international resume within his peer group. I can see a range of 5-15 for the nephew of new Isles’ coach Lane. 

2. Lane Hutson: The USNTDP defenceman was measured at 5-foot-8, 148 pounds in Central Scouting’s final rankings. From an on-ice perspective, he’s a surefire first-rounder. From a size perspective, he would be the smallest defenceman in the NHL, if and when he plays. Of note, Hutson brought a report from an endocrinologist to the Combine, which indicates he has almost two more years of bone growth left in his body. Essentially, growing to 5-foot-10 is not out of the question. If Hutson was 5-foot-10 today, he would be projected to go inside the top 15 picks of this draft. 

Not That Jack Hughes

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There’s another Jack Hughes available in 2022, but he isn’t related to the family of Jack, Quinn and Luke.

Son of Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes, this Jack Hughes could still be a first-round pick (No. 20 in pre-lottery rankings).

If he’s not taken by the Habs, I asked Jack if whenever he got selected he would take a pass by the Canadiens’ table to hug his dad. It’s not something he had thought of previously but said he would definitely consider it after all his dad has done for him.

Of note, it was debated as to whether or not Kent should’ve been in the room for Jack’s interview with Montreal. At first Kent tried to leave, and that would’ve been the preference for Jack, but the rest of team management thought it would be better if he stayed in the room.

More Hughes

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Attending his first combine as GM, it must’ve been hard for Kent not to pick Jack’s brain in terms of how the interview process works for other teams.

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Three and Counting

Austrian Marco Kasper was one of the most impressive interviews we conducted. He learned Swedish in three months, adding to his Austrian and German language repertoire. And, by the way, he’s also learning French in school.

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Kasper left Austria at 16 to play for Rogle in Sweden’s SHL. His parents dropped him off in the small Swedish town and stayed with him for two weeks before leaving him on his own. 

Show and Tell

Imagine going to school and taking class next to an NHLer? That’s exactly the case for Kasper’s classmates, who, whenever time permits, still attends regular school classes when not playing or travelling with his Rogle team in the SHL. 

GAUT

The best trick performed in our interviews was executed by Cutter Gauthier of the USNTDP. When asked about a hidden talent, he claimed he could juggle. Producer Scott Lennox then proceeded to get him to juggle four Timbits and Gauthier nailed it, ending his session by having the last Timbit end up in his mouth. 

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Combine Karaoke

A self-described lyrics savant, Conor Geekie was challenged to sing a few lines of Zach Bryan’s Heading South and he knocked it out of the park.  Geekie was one of the most engaging interviews in the draft class.

Catching Juraj

You couldn’t help but notice Juraj Slafkovsky’s physical presence. As soon as he walked into our room, you understood why he’s so highly thought of. Not only is he massive, but had a gregarious personality and a quiet confidence that suggests he will be a star in the league. 

All the Wright Reasons

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Shane Wright’s pursuit of learning guitar continues. Learning an instrument challenges the brain in a different way than hockey and it’s a great escape from the pressure of being the projected first overall pick.

Pierre Pierre

Really impressed with what we heard out of Pierre Dorion’s exit meeting with Brady Tkachuk. The Sens captain came to the meeting with a prepared list of questions/concerns from teammates. 

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Go Leafs Go

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Toronto had a unique way of interacting with players over the week. The Maple Leafs showed prospects video clips of themselves and asked them to explain the clip and the prospect’s role in it.

Chesley vs. The Field

USNTDP defender Ryan Chesley made the bold claim that he’s the best pure defender in the draft class.  

Out of Left Field

The Colorado Avalanche welcomed players into their interview room by having them compete in a candy tossing competition against a person on their scouting staff. Ottawa’s Vinzenz Rohrer went five-for-five and let them know it with a little trash talk afterwards.

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Favourites

The Combine provides a forum in which you can talk to players casually before or after their testing, or in the hallways of the hotel. Had great conversations with Luca Del Bel Belluz, Noah Warren, Owen Beck, and Tristan Luneau. One player I sought to speak with was Kingston’s Paul Ludwinski. Awesome young man who has experienced his fair share of adversity in his life and it shows in his play. He plays like his hair’s on fire, and does so consistently.

Go Fishing

One player who absolutely blew me away with his maturity was Michael Fisher of St. Mark’s High School. He spoke at length about how St. Mark’s not only produces good athletes, but more importantly, good people. He had high praise for his parents, both plastics engineers, and head coach Carl Corazzini. No wonder why the Northeastern commit was the captain of his team. Earlier in the season, he was awarded the Boston Bruins John Carlton Memorial Award as the most outstanding male athlete in high school or junior hockey. 

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Darvin Ham 'wouldn't hesitate' to bench players who don't embrace new roles | UNDISPUTED

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After meeting with LeBron James last week, Darvin Ham is bringing a new mindset to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers’ new coach is ready to hold players accountable. In addition, according to Chris Haynes, Ham said he will not hesitate to take players out the game that show up reluctant in new roles. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe discuss whether they see Ham benching players such as Russell Westbrook or not.



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Pac-12 football: Can Lincoln Riley and Dan Lanning make immediate impacts?

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High-profile Pac-12 programs USC and Oregon both have new head coaches. How they do are among RJ Young’s key storylines to watch.



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Cleaning Manchester United’s transfer mess starts with Cristiano Ronaldo exit; the next steps will be tougher

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At last Manchester United appear to be seeing the reality of their situation. A sweeping of the decks at Old Trafford might be the only way to eventually restore some star power to this fading icon and that starts with the A-lister who shone brightest the last time this club were at the top of the European game.

Manchester United sources Monday night were publicly insistent that Cristiano Ronaldo is not for sale and is expected to see out the final year of his contract. In particular, they insisted that reports United would look to terminate that deal were incorrect. By Tuesday morning, that stance has gotten somewhat softer and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner could indeed be allowed to leave.

The question, of course, is where to? Of the possible Champions League contenders that he wants to join, only Chelsea took a long look at him and they have concluded otherwise. Atletico Madrid’s fans are campaigning against his signature while Barcelona president Joan Laporta did not deny that his club had been offered (and rejected) the chance to sign the 37-year-old before picking the younger model in Robert Lewandowski and then activating the fourth “lever.”

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Indeed, CBS Sports understands that the only offers currently on the table for Ronaldo come from Saudi Arabia, where two leading clubs have made plain their willingness to take the Portugal international on increased wages despite his own reticence. Ronaldo, the current Champions League record scorer, feels he has unfinished business in that competition and will want to be playing at the highest level before this winter’s World Cup in Qatar. One of the two Saudi clubs interested in his services has told CBS Sports that their offer would still be on the table for Ronaldo in January, but that may be too late for Erik ten Hag’s new start.

Ronaldo could be well be unshiftable in the closing days of the transfer window. The worry for United ought to be how many others in their squad are of the same status.

It was instructive to see former Manchester United defender Gary Neville apply RAG status to the club’s financial business in the years since their guiding light, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired. Of 33 signings made over the past nine years, two got the green light from the pundit, seven were amber and the rest were the sort of unqualified disappointments that constituted red status. To which one had two immediate reactions. First of all, surely something deeper than red is required? After all, Daley Blind wasn’t great but he was hardly an Alexis Sanchez-style blow up your wage bill, rob minutes from talented youngsters and end up paying his wages just for him to go away disaster.

Then when your eyes moved from the mass of inadequate recruitment to the supposed successes, you cannot help but feel the bar might be too low. Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave United a great first season but didn’t even make it to the end of a deeply disappointing second while Bruno Fernandes‘ form has fallen off a cliff since Ronaldo, implausibly an amber on Neville’s list, arrived.

Many of these players that Neville was so unimpressed by make up the rump of ten Hag’s squad now. There are plenty, the Phil Joneses, Eric Baillys and even Anthony Martials (at least until his preseason revival) who seem bound to see out their contract until the bitter end, but also foundational pieces of the squad that finished sixth. United are swimming in center backs who are above the aforementioned two in the depth chart, but who would throw a stack of money at them to pay the sizable wages of Victor Lindelof or Raphael Varane

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A year ago, the suggestion that United might struggle to find a buyer for Fernandes would have been laughed out of the conversation. Why would they want to, for starters? But then the 27-year-old is redolent of a playing squad that comes to Old Trafford for atrophy rather than silverware. Fred might be in the same boat. Both show often enough that club scouts were not wrong to see talent in them. However, without a defined tactical structure to sit within, Fernandes in particular seems to indulge his worst tendencies. Last season, the Portugal international ranked third for intercepted passes, sixth for those that went out of bounds (only Joao Cancelo beat him in both categories, but the Manchester City full back also completed more than 1,000 more than his compatriot’s 1,524). 

The most convincing case for a Fernandes sale — not something his club have shown any indication of considering — is that managers might still have time to deprogram his Unitedness before it is too late. One might make the same case for the faltering Marcus Rashford, who was linked with Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month. It is fair to say that revelations of dialogue between his agent and the Ligue 1 champions did not emanate from the Parc des Princes.  It would appear that ten Hag is too late to do the same where David de Gea is concerned. He simply cannot pass the football to the standard required by most modern clubs.

Ederson, Alisson and even Aaron Ramsdale have enhanced their side’s attacking capabilities with searing passes that don’t just keep possession at their teammate’s feet, but create opportunities in the blink of an eye. Where those goalkeepers speed the game, De Gea slows it down. What passes he has made so far this season have been either knocking the ball short to a center back or punting the ball aimlessly up the field. It took 180 minutes for him to successfully complete a pass into the opposition half, a goal kick thumped in the direction of Anthony Elanga when United were 4-0 down at Brentford.

Passes made by De Gea and Ramsdale this season. Note how frequently Ramsdale is able to pick out team mates high up the pitch, quickly moving Arsenal into attacking positions
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Ten Hag has said — in reference to his team as a whole — that he is confident they can adapt to his demands because they did so in preseason. Speaking after his horror show at the Gtec Community Stadium, De Gea offered a clear explanation for why he will find things more difficult. “It’s too easy to play in preseason when you play for nothing,” he said. “When you play in the games that matters is when you need bravery and to be more consistent and to be proper players. That wasn’t the case today. We need to stick together and we have a lot to learn under a new manager.”

Liverpool didn’t exactly gameplan for De Gea when they were losing 4-0 in Bangkok. Brentford did with Christian Norgaard revealing after the match they had gone man-to-man from goal kicks; in theory, United should have had a spare player in De Gea. The reality is he was as effective a means of the hosts scoring goals as getting Ivan Toney isolated against Lisandro Martinez. Jurgen Klopp will surely look to repeat the trick.

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What can United do about it bar hope De Gea gets better with the ball at his feet? The overlap in a Venn diagram of “clubs who can match £375,000-a-week salaries” and “clubs who will tolerate a goalkeeper who cannot pass progressively” is miniscule. Look down the squad list at Old Trafford and there are more players like the Spaniard than unlike him — those who have been rather left behind by the modern game, at least in part because of the antiquated football operations at the club, and who would curry next to no suitors.

It is why United are instead forced to cash in on talented youngsters such as James Garner, the £15 million they hope to get for him is a fair sight more than they could get for plenty of the established internationals in their team. The cash reserves are not as bountiful as they once were at Old Trafford; to adapt a Josh Kroenke phrase, this is a team with a Champions League wage bill on a Europa Conference League budget.

Arsenal, last season’s early crisis club, at least offer some sense of how United can get out of this mess and it takes them back to the Ronaldo case. North London was not short of similar players; aging stars whose output didn’t match their salary and whose conduct did not always impress Mikel Arteta. Arsenal director Edu Gaspar simply paid them to go away. 

“Try to avoid one more year with the problem inside, in the dressing room, expensive, not performing,” the Brazilian technical director said last month. “Clean, take it out. Even, I’m sorry, if you have to pay. To leave is better. Because that guy is sometimes also blocking someone.

“I know it hurts, I know it’s strange when I go to the board and say, ‘Sometimes it’s better to pay a player to leave than maintain them.’ But I consider it an investment. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s expensive.’ I say, ‘No, it’s investment.’ But someone will pay if you sell? No, guys — if the player is above 26, 27 and not performing, big salary, no chance.”

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It is not an approach without its pitfalls. Right now Arsenal want a fee for Hector Bellerin, but why would Real Betis pay it when history suggests that the Gunners are more likely to rip up his deal than keep him around for the final year of his contract. And, of course, no player will terminate their contract unless they know there is another club waiting for them. The reality, though, is that the richest Premier League clubs have few other options in the current financial climate across the rest of the game.

That same reality that Arsenal faced in January 2021 when they began paying players to play elsewhere now looms large for United. They might have accepted that they don’t want their players, but the following realization might be even tougher for them. No one else wants them either.



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