A lot of critics downplay the importance of this component of the draft process, and I mostly agree with their concerns. Pretty much every scout says that most of the work on these prospects is already done by now, derived from their on-ice performance the last couple of seasons. Hockey men often state that the more important part of the Combine is the interviews, a chance to get to know the prospects one-on-one, not the tank tops and shorts portion.
The NFL holds a similar event though much more media-heavy with its yearly Draft Combine held in Indianopolis. That league went through a phase when certain players’ draft value shot up due to good workouts there, or good 'Pro Days' held at their respective colleges. These guys looked great in shorts, looked impressive, but then you got them in training camp and realized that they weren’t great at football, they couldn’t learn the playbook, had poor football instincts.
Brodrick Bunkley was one player who got himself into the first round mostly because of his 44 reps on the bench press, and how massive he looked. I remember how they could barely fit him in an enclosed capsule that was meant to measure
And of course the lay fan will ask who is Brodrick Bunkley, and asking the question makes the point that the Combine should only be a small part of a player’s evaluation. And the workout warriors no longer hold sway on the NFL Draft as they used to, the athletic marvels who were ‘projects’. The NFL is the Not For Long league, you can’t afford to draft a guy nowadays and leave him on your bench for three years while he learns the game.
Last season at the Combine, much was made of Sam Bennett’s failure to do a single pullup. Most hockey men scoffed at the importance of this, all of them said the kid was a keeper and they’d draft him if they could. I think Trevor Timmins guardedly explained that the value of this physical testing is only in giving strength and conditioning coaches a picture of the prospects’ areas they need to improve, to work on in the off-season.
Some wags went further, and stated that if a player can get these results on-ice and do poorly on the physical testing, it actually raises their value, since you imagine that they have a lot of room to improve once they work on their fitness properly, with the right supervision, compared to the prospects who are more physically conditioned and mature, with fewer low-hanging fruits.
One final thought is how the New York Rangers’ scouting staff were amazed at Ryan McDonagh:
Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, was awed by McDonagh at the 2007 NHL Combine, where teams had an opportunity to interview players and test their physical fitness.
"I remember back in that draft year, I would say he might have given the single most impressive performance I have ever seen during the testing at the Combine," said Clark. "It was like a man working out against boys. I think you can still see that in his play."
When the Scott Gomez trade started brewing, they hounded Glen Sather to get him included in the deal. In this particular case, Ryan McDonagh certainly left a lasting impression in the Combine testing, and it helped raise his value, in at least one team’s evaluation.
So in most cases, these physical testing results can only fill in part of the picture. And yes, most scouts and talking heads explain that despite Jack Eichel’s stronger performance in these tests, no one is seriously advocating that he now become the favourite to go first overall above Connor McDavid, everyone is taking it in context.
EDIT: Gare Joyce has two articles on the outliers at the Combine, one on four prospects who did quite well, and another on five who didn't impress.