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Monroe native Matt Mahalak has been a goaltender for nearly his entire life, so he’s used to being tested.
But the young netminder admits he is wary of the “Aerobic Bike VO2max Test,” which is among 18 fitness exams he will face at the NHL Combine in May.
Mahalak, who turned 18 in January, has been chosen to be among a select group of young hockey players to be examined during the annual NHL Combine.
Much like the better known NFL Combine, the screening process is used by scouts and general managers to determine player selection in the NHL draft in June.
“There are all kinds of tests,” Mahalak said. “There are reaction time tests. Strength tests. Agility tests. But one of the most infamous tests is their bike test. You basically have to bike until your legs fall off. They beat you up. It should be interesting.”
The endurance exam measures the capacity of the player to use oxygen while pedaling a bike with differing resistance for long periods of time.
Mahalak has now focused in on the Combine after just completing his first season in the Ontario Hockey League. He is a goalie for the Plymouth Whalers, a major junior team located in Plymouth, Mich., which is about 25 miles northeast of Ann Arbor.
He accepted an invitation from the NHL to participate in the NHL Combine, which is a week-long battery of tests from May 30 to June 5 in Toronto.
Mahalak is one of just eight young goalies picked to attend the Combine. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Mahalak has tremendous size which allows him to cover a lot of the net. It also has earned him a No. 8 ranking among all draft eligible goalies.
Plymouth coach Mike Vellucci said he believes Mahalak will do well at the Combine because he is cerebral, athletic, and physically gifted.
“He has a strong mental approach,” Vellucci said. “He’s very analytical. He doesn’t get too rattled after a goal. As a goalie you have to have a short term memory. He’s your last line of defense. He has great concentration. Plus he has great size and athletic ability for a goalie. Those were the two physical things we liked.”
Vellucci said only the top 80 players, including just the eight highest rated goalies, are invited to the combine.
“It is a very select group,” Vellucci said.
Although he has been seen by many scouts during the season, all 30 NHL teams send representatives to watch the testing at the Combine.
“This is going to be the one time where I will be surrounded by NHL scouts, general managers, and coaches,” Mahalak said. “So it will be a highlight of my career.”
Vellucci said the players’ performance in the mental tests are weighed more heavily than the physical tests. He said the NHL differs from the NFL’s combine because the football players are college-age and have had years to develop.
“These guys are only 17 or 18, and they are not physically mature yet,” Vellucci said. “They’re still growing. What’s more important is the interview process.”
Mahalak said he has spoken to players that attended the Combine.
“They have a wide variety of tests and it takes five days,” Mahalak said. “You have interviews with teams. You never know what to expect. They throw a ton of things at you. You have no idea the response they are looking for. Some are looking for different things. You just have to go in and relax, just be yourself and be honest.”
Mahalak’s season ended when his team was eliminated from the OHL playoffs Wednesday. He said his training will intensify. He will still be on the ice at least three times week and will be in the weight room five times a week. He will be working out primarily with teammate Stefan Noesen, who also was invited to the Combine.
“I’m trying to prepare physically to be in the best shape possible,” he said.
The players are given fitness 18 tests, which include hand grip strength, wingspan reach, push-ups, and sit-ups.
A variation of one of the NFL signature tests, the max bench press, also is conducted at the NHL event. Players do a maximum number of reps at 150 pounds. They also must do 25 reps per minute in time with a metronome.
“It’s a slightly odd test,” Mahalak said. “The idea is to make sure everyone is tested fairly. A lot that the football players do just does not apply to hockey.”
The examiners also use the same mental test twice. It is used to gauge reaction time, and it is used before a physical workout and then after the workout.
“They want to see how your tiredness affects your score,” Mahalak said.
Mahalak said his Plymouth team has some of the Combine’s sequences.
“I will use that to help to prepare. They have all the resources,” Mahalak said.
Vellucci, who just finished his 10th season as the Whalers head coach, said he is “100 percent” sure Mahalak will be drafted.
“It’s hard to predict where he will go,” Vellucci said. “He had a good year at the end for us. But goalies are tough to predict. It seems like once the first goalie is drafted, then other goalies start to get drafted.”
Mahalak attended three high schools while pursuing his NHL dreams, playing elite travel hockey. He graduated from Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central and now attends the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Mahalak had a slow start in his first season of major junior hockey. He finished with an 8-8-4 record with a 3.08 goals against average in 21 games. He had one shutout and a .908 save percentage.
Mahalak could become the highest drafted player from the Toledo area since NHL veteran Bryan Smolinski was a first round pick (21st overall) by Boston in 1990.
No matter what round Mahalak gets drafted, he still will play two more years in the OHL, a developmental league.
Generally young hockey players then move up to the American Hockey League, which is equivalent to the Triple-A level in baseball.
The draft will be held on June 24-25.
Vellucci, a former defenseman who played six seasons of minor pro hockey, said even when Mahalak was 16 he liked the young goalie’s presence in net. The Whalers selected Mahalak in the second round of the 2009 OHL. At the time, Mahalak was playing for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League.
“We knew he was the best goalie in his age group,” Vellucci said. “We also liked his mental aspect. He’s such an intelligent kid.”
Vellucci said part of Mahalak’s slow start was the youth of the team.
“We threw him out there,” Vellucci said. “After Christmas, we had a good talk. I think he realized he was playing pro hockey now. He needed to be the first on the ice and the last off it. He listened, and he worked extremely hard.”
Vellucci said Mahalak’s stats improved dramatically in the second half.
“He had a .960 save percentage, which is phenomenal,” Vellucci said.
Mahalak said over the season he transitioned into more of a reactive goaltender. He said he relies on positioning, which always has been a strength, but is now focusing on making saves and control rebounds.
“One thing that has become a staple in my game has been ice awareness,” Mahalak said. “I’m more able to read plays and get to the spot I need to be.”
Mahalak said his big frame is “useful in every aspect.”
“My style has kind of transformed this year,” he said. “I’ve taken some giant leaps. I’m more of a blocking type goalie. I try to use my size well to make saves.”
The Plymouth Whalers have a history of sending goalies into the NHL, including Fred Brathwaite and Robert Esche. Brathwaite played for Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis and Columbus in the 1990s. Esche’s NHL career spanned from 1998 to 2007.
Vellucci said Mahalak compares favorably to Matt Haskins, a goalie that recently played for the Whalers. Haskins was drafted in the third round of the 2009 draft.
“He’s a tall, lanky kid, and he will keep getting stronger,” Vellucci said.
Mahalak said NHL teams know Plymouth’s tradition.
“They know it is a great spot for goalies to develop. They’ve seen so many guys go through this organization,” he said. “This sets me up for success because the scouts have so much faith in the Plymouth system.”
But Mahalak also realizes he can help his own cause greatly at the Combine.
“All I can do is prepare for the Combine,” he said. “Just being invited ups my chances because it’s such a small number of guys who are invited. I just want to go there and perform well.”
Vellucci said the Whalers will have patience with Mahalak to allow him to develop the technical skills.
“He has the size and mental aspect,” Vellucci said. “There’s no doubt the sky is the limit for him.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com or 419-724-6354.