Milan Lucic makes John Whitesides repeat the story over and over. He likes how it sounds, perhaps, or the incongruity it has with who he is and who he’s become. Because in the story, Whitesides gets it all wrong.
It happened back in 2006, when Lucic headed to the combine before his draft year. Whitesides, the Bruins’ strength and conditioning coach, was there, as he always is, taking part in the evaluations of potential draft picks.
He knew that Lucic was in the team’s sights. He knew that the scouts thought him tough — they had told the coach so. But the winger had just come off playing in the finals of the Memorial Cup. He wasn’t exactly an impressive specimen. He was thin. He didn’t seem to stand up to his advance billing.
“They all told me how tough Lucic was,” Whitesides said. “I was like, this kid is tough? Really?
“I say it to him all the time. He always comes in, he’s like, ‘Tell me what you said about me at the combine.’ Because I looked at him, I didn’t write anything about him, but I’m like, this kid? This kid’s tough? He was a stringbean.”
Whitesides can laugh now. The Bruins drafted Lucic with the 50th overall pick in 2006, a second-rounder who has become one of the toughest players in the NHL, a first-line forward with the grit prized by his team.
It serves, too, as a reminder that projections aren’t easy, not when Whitesides gets a one-day glimpse at a player, at his numbers and performance in testing, at his body type and effort level.
“You see kids come in, and you’re like, this kid’s going to be good? And then he’s good,” Whitesides said. “Mine’s just such a snapshot, a small snapshot of where they are, what they can do.”
The scouting, of course, is a much bigger piece, a piece that extends the year before the draft and sometimes longer, a piece that takes a far more detailed look at a player’s abilities and potential. But that doesn’t mean Whitesides isn’t a crucial part of the Bruins’ decision-making regarding players.
“A lot of these kids are at different levels at that time of the year, some of them just finished playing, some of them haven’t worked out really for a long period of time,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “So you have to be careful about how you use it.
“But just like the interviews where maybe in the course of 60 interviews you get three red flags — I don’t know if the ratio is the same — but he observes some red flags that you take into consideration. Depending on the magnitude of the red flag, it may have more impact on where he ends up on our list.”
Whitesides, who has been with the team for 13 seasons, has gone to the combine for years. He’s not alone. Most strength and conditioning coaches attend, watching closely as players go through vigorous testing.
It’s not a secret that they’re there. But what exactly are they looking for? Which tests do they view as most important and most telling? That’s kept far more under wraps, at least by the Bruins.
“What we do — without divulging too much — is we get them to assess the body types, assess the work ethic, because a lot of these tests that they do are obviously a measurement of their strength and flexibility and aerobic and anaerobic capacity, but it’s also he’s been watching kids work and grow over the course of his career and he’s very observant,” Chiarelli said. “So we get him to write notes on work ethic and body types and characteristics and we give him a list of players and he observes.”
Except, Whitesides doesn’t always study the list.
When potential draftees are going through their testing at the combine, they’re assigned numbers. Scouts and coaches and front-office members have lists that match up numbers to names. Whitesides purposely doesn’t read his. He doesn’t want his opinions tainted by prior knowledge. He doesn’t want to know if they can play or not.
“I try not to know who they are,” he said. “Because I find like, oh, this is so-and-so, let me really watch him. I don’t pay attention to the Red Line Report, I don’t watch any of that stuff because I find you focus on those kids more.”
Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Everyone knew who Sidney Crosby was at the combine of his draft year. All the cameras were on him. All the focus was on him. But most of the time Whitesides is successful in avoiding the noise, in not talking to the Bruins scouts, in keeping himself unbiased.
He keeps Lucic in mind.
“I just remember the thing about Looch being tough and I overanalyzed it, right? I overanalyzed it and I’m like there’s no way this kid’s tough,” Whitesides said. “Someone put that preconceived notion in my mind.”
That’s not what Whitesides wants. He wants a fresh mind to watch the players that might one day be subjected to his testing and treatments, his unique motivational tools and curse-filled tirades. He doesn’t have the benefit of having tracked the players for months and years, unlike the scouts. He just has his snapshot.
He needs to gather as much information as possible in that short window, without the benefit of being able to interact with the players. He sees how they look, how they do at testing — a visual and a set of numbers that combine to give an idea of what a prospect can and will do.
“It’s changed,” Whitesides said. “Now you see all these kids come in and they know what the tests are going to be, their agents are getting them into fitness people right away. They’re not coming in at 25 percent fat. They know what a vertical jump is and they’ve done it.
“Like 13 years ago you’d get especially the kids from Europe, they’d come over and the vertical jump — they’d be like what do you do? You see a little bit of that but it’s nothing [compared to before]. You used to see it all the time.”
But it’s a balance, too. “You don’t want a kid that’s peaked [physically],” said Whitesides. “You want a kid that’s going to get better but is willing to do it.”
That willingness is crucial. That, sometimes, is what separates them. Whitesides mentioned Adam McQuaid, in particular, as a player who never stood out in terms of talent, who essentially willed himself into the NHL. There are legions who didn’t do that, who took outsized talent and made it irrelevant with less-than-impressive work habits.
Of course, there is only so much Whitesides can see in that one day at the combine. There is only so much he can offer. He can see, say, a player with 13 percent body fat. That would normally be a red flag. But if that same player had 20 percent body fat a year ago, it might not be read the same.
That’s where Whitesides is limited. That’s where his notes end, and the scouting notes begin.
“I have such a small snapshot of them on that day,” he said. “They prepared for it. It wasn’t like we woke them up and tested them. They were all prepared. They should be, anyway. And if they’re not, why aren’t they? That’s the other question. Are they not willing or are they naive?
“It’s like the pieces of a puzzle.”