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NHL prospects show off their body work Add to ...

The young man didn't look well.

His arm was around his stomach, his other hand near his mouth, but the questions kept coming from reporters around him and he gamely tried to keep answering them.

But Matthew Nieto, a shifty left winger from Long Beach, Calif., who was a rookie at Boston University this season, was going to be sick.

Welcome to the NHL's scouting combine, where more than 100 human guinea pigs blow their brains out trying to impress scouts and general managers in two hours of strenuous physical testing that more often than not results in losing their breakfast.

The 18-year-olds are often so eager to catch someone's eye, they don't mind the poking and prodding - or even puking - side of their introduction to the pros.

"I think it made me stronger, as a person, going through a lot of that," Nieto said, revealing just how far from home he was when he noted his introduction to the game came on wheels.

"Coming into the weekend here, I expected it to be a gruelling experience and it was."

Of the many prospects taking part in the NHL's testing, the top five or six drew the vast majority of interest on Friday as teams prepare for the entry draft three weeks from now in Minnesota.

The projected top three - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau and Gabriel Landeskog - are especially in the spotlight, with the trio headed with one or two others to Boston for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final and an appearance on Hockey Night in Canada with Don Cherry.

That's become an annual rite of passage, although what's changed is just how well prepared - often professionally - the players are for the next step.

Many train for months for the combine in order to improve their results, and their physiques showed it Friday, with even the biggest of the big men - 6-foot-7, 250-pound defenceman Jamieson Oleksiak - looking like something out of Men's Health magazine.

Others, like Nugent-Hopkins, obviously still need to fill in, but the good news is that the NHL has become a league where small, skilled, young players can make a bigger impact than they did 10 years ago.

Especially given how much training even the lightweights do.

"The game's definitely changed," said Nugent-Hopkins, who despite a poor showing on the bench press Friday is expected to go first overall to the Edmonton Oilers. "There's a lot of strength involved right now. But I know there's been lots of great players who couldn't lift much."

The combine itself has undergone its own transformation, with portions of it turned into a made-for-television event by TSN for the second year in a row as more and more league events evolve into hockey content.

Soon there could be on-ice aspects to the affair, with the NHL mimicking the NFL's annual testing session.

The increasing demands associated with being a top draft-eligible player mean that in addition to being fairly well known before they ever step to the draft podium, many will go through not only an NHL combine but several others run by individual teams.

That can result in a gruelling schedule for rising stars like Huberdeau, who won the Memorial Cup in Mississauga six days ago, went to Saint John for the Sea Dogs' parade Tuesday, was in Toronto for the combine a couple of days later, and flew home to Montreal - for his 18th birthday - on Friday night.

By Monday, he will be in Boston for Game 3, before going to Ottawa for the Senators' combine on Tuesday. (The Senators hold the sixth overall pick and won't get Huberdeau without moving up.) It's a little absurd when you add it all up, especially given so many teams are skeptical of the data the NHL's combine produces anyway.

But that's a price prospects - even those slotted well after the big three - are eager to pay.

"We didn't get a lot of rest," Huberdeau said of the five Sea Dogs at the combine. "We're for sure a little bit tired, but that's hockey."

More now than ever before.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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