MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Kevin Devine used to walk out of meetings with NHL prospects thinking he’d just talked to a robot. The kids had been so prepped by agents and advisers that nothing of consequence came from the chats.
“We told the agents, ‘We want the real kids. We don’t want them coming in like you’re sitting in the room instead of the kids,’ ” Devine, the Buffalo Sabres’ director of amateur scouting, said Friday.
The message was received. Devine has been interviewing draft-eligible players all week at the NHL scouting combine, and he’s been impressed with their answers and insights. He’s not alone.
“This is the best I’ve seen,” Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said in the International Centre. “The personalities in this draft, it was a great four days of interviews.”
The chats will continue next week for the Sabres. The NHL combine wraps up today, but Buffalo will hold its own Sunday through Thursday. The Sabres will welcome 70 to 75 prospects to town, including about 30 who participated in the league-wide event.
“They come into Buffalo, it’s the second time around and they’re a lot more relaxed down there,” Devine said. “You see their true personality.”
The Sabres also will get to see the players on the ice. The NHL combine features interviews and fitness testing, but no one skates. The Sabres had the ice reinstalled in First Niagara Center for their combine.
“The on-ice stuff is more important for me,” Devine said. “The game is played on the ice.”
The best prospects will come to Buffalo on Sunday and Monday. Players who didn’t get an invitation to the NHL combine will visit Tuesday through Thursday. The event is closed to the public.
“We invited all the guys in the first round, but the top guys have to go other places or have other commitments,” Devine said, alluding to Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. “A lot of the top guys just finished playing, too. We’ve got more Europeans coming in this year, which is good.”
This is the third combine staged by the Sabres, and it continues to evolve. Dr. Barbara Mayers, a psychologist who works with the Sabres, helps develop interview questions and analyze the answers. Doug McKenney, the strength and conditioning coach, puts the players through workouts that differ from the league’s tests.
“We’ll give these kids psychological tests, too,” Devine said, “and if something comes out of those things we try to dig down with it.
“We’re in the baby stages of all this, so we’re still trying to figure stuff out. It’s just like when we started doing the video scouting, and it’s been eight years now. At first it was great, but how do you use it? This is also still in the early stages, so we’ll figure out what’s important, what’s not important.”
The Sabres’ scouting staff needs to work harder than usual this year because it’s not sure how many picks the Sabres will have or when they’ll draft. They hold the Nos. 8 and 16 slots, but General Manager Darcy Regier wants to move up.
“We’ve got some assets to do that,” Devine said. “We’re still digging on that. We’ll meet this weekend. We’ve got a Buffalo combine, and then we’ll meet again after that. We’re going to try and figure it all out.”
Colorado has tossed out the idea of trading the No. 1 overall pick. The Panthers pick second, and Tallon is gauging interest.
“You see what they’re willing to pay, and that’s the fun part of the job,” Tallon said. “I’ve had a couple of mild conversations here and there this week, ‘Are you going to move the pick?’ Make me an offer. That’s the way it goes. You start the process early, and you work it all the way through till the five minutes before you make the pick, maybe a minute before the pick.”