Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

For NHL draft’s top prospects, honesty is the best policy

TORONTO — Candor counts that much more in a draft year that lacks a consensus, no-doubt first overall choice.

By the age of 18, a first-rank NHL prospect is far from a complete player but has heard and read enough about himself to know what nits are being picked. Areas in need of work are a frequent topic of conversation during the interviews with prospective NHL teams that take place in packed hotel rooms. How the puck prodigy handles it — does he get defensive, change the topic, break eye contact? — can factor into a team's final evaluation ahead of the June 26 first round in Philadelphia.

"A lot of them ask about my weaknesses and I make sure I'm honest with myself," says Aaron Ekblad, the hulking Barrie Colts defenceman who is the running to go No. 1 overall, pending what the Florida Panthers do with that top pick. "A lot of the teams ask, 'what are your worst traits as a person?' or something like that. They want to see if you can be honest with yourself, if you can self-evaluate and see 'this is what I need to work on' and work on it.

"My footwork is probably one of the biggest things I need to work on," adds the Ontario Hockey League's defenceman of the year. "I'm 6-foot-3½ and 220 pounds, and I need to be able to move my feet as well as the fastest skaters in the NHL. If I can, maybe I'll get the opportunity to play next year."

Six of the first 10 selections from the loaded 2013 draft, including four of the first five, stuck in the big league this season. (That's counting Rasmus Ristolainen's 34-game debut with Buffalo before the Sabres had a management shakeup.) No player in the '14 crop will ever say he doesn't believe he can do so — the mind reels that the question even gets asked — but it's difficult. Ekblad knows he needs to be lighter on his feet. The promising pivots out of the WHL, Kootenay's Sam Reinhart and Prince Albert's Leon Draisaitl, each face questions about whether their foot speed will ever match the speed at which they anticipate openings on the ice.

Central Scouting Service's top-ranked skaters on each side of the pond, Sam Bennett and Kaspari Kapanen, along with the Oshawa Generals' Michael Dal Colle all face questions about physical maturity. All three were summer babies, not coincidentally.

"I have a lot of trust in my trainer to get me ready for next year," says Bennett, who had 91 points in 57 games for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs. "I'm going to be a lot bigger and stronger. I definitely think I will be ready to go.

"I'm not defensive when I get asked about that," the 6-foot-¼, 178-pound centre adds. "I know it's one of the things that I need to work on. It's not a hidden thing that I don't know about."

Betraying an inflated sense of self-worth can be a red flag. It's not like NHL organizations are expecting the complete package.

"You don't need to lie, that's the last thing you want to do," says Kapanen, the 6-foot, 181-pound standout from Finland's KalPa Kuopio who does not turn 18 until July 23, four weeks after the draft. "Everything they ask me to tell, they know pretty much who you are. They want to see what type of person you are."

Teams are infamous for throwing out brain-teasers and riddles to players. For whatever reason, there's a Lucic-esque code nowadays about letting that stay inside the hotel rooms.

"Some, you're in the middle surrounded by 15 or 20 guys," says Dal Colle, whose lanky frame and defensive acumen both need to fill out. "You're going to have look back at and look at guys talking to you from everywhere in the room. But after 23 interviews you're pretty used to it. I like to think I'm pretty well-spoken kid. I think I handled it well."

Another pratfall to avoid is sounding too rote or rehearsed. Or too coached.

"I know most teams ask pretty similar things," Reinhart says. "You try to keep it a little different.

"Some teams had two guys in there, some teams had 13," says the 18-year-old, who had 105 points for the WHL's Kootenay Ice this past season and skated with Canada during the world championship earlier this month. "The weirdest thing was coming into a room and seeing the layout. Once you knew what it was going to be about, I don't think it was very intimidating."

Draisaitl also downplays the notion that the hockey people are trying to rattle teenager. The Prince Albert star, who played for Germany at the senior worlds, also knows he's better off being frank about his need to improve his skating. Using his 6-foot-1½, 204-pound frame to protect the puck from defenders won't play as well at the next level.

"The teams just do their job and say they want to get to know you," says Draistail, Central Scouting's the fourth-ranked North American skater after Bennett, Ekblad and Reinhart.

"I know what my weaknesses are and don't have a problem talking about it. My skating and my defensive games are not my best assets. That's what I told them right away and I think they expected that from me."

There is also no point in playing the ignorance-is-bliss card anymore. The 'I try not to think about it and just play my game' stock answer might work in a between periods interview in January, but not by June. Prospect-watching has become too much of a beat unto itself.

"You definitely know what is said about you even if you're not looking to find it," Bennett says. "That's just the way it is now."

Much is made of the players' interviews with teams. In a sense, fielding questions from a roomful of adults is the least straining part of a week full of media obligations and eye-glazing medical screenings. Then there's the actual physical part.

"The hard work comes tomorrow," Bennett said, referring to Saturday's fitness testing.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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