Smaller Players Thriving in Today’s NHL
NHL scouts tend to put a preference on size when ranking potential prospects. As of 2016-17, the average size of an NHL player was 6’1” and 207 lbs.
Many of today’s top NHL stars, such as John Tavares (6”1′. 208 lbs), Steven Stamkos (6’1”, 194 lbs), Connor McDavid (6’1”, 192 lbs) and Sidney Crosby (5’11”, 200 lbs) fall within the league average.
Players with large, heavy frames have an advantange over their smaller peers. Their size, strength and longer reach gives them the edge in shooting, stickhandling and physical play.
Imagine a modern NHL skater and imposing stars such as Zdeno Chara (6’9”, 250 lbs), Ryan Getzlaf (6’4”, 223 lbs), Joe Thornton (6’4”, 220 lbs) and Alex Ovechkin (6’3”, 235 lbs) likely come to mind. They’re extreme examples, but many scouts, team executives and fans would consider them the perfect size for an NHL superstar.
But with the speed of the big-league game increasing in recent years, there’s been a recent rise in smaller, faster, skilled talent reaching the NHL.
Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau is a notable example. At 5’9” and 157 lbs, he’s well below the league’s average size. Throughout his hockey career, he was considered too small to be an effective player.
Time and again, however, Gaudreau confounded the experts. Now in his fourth NHL campaign, the 24-year-old is a former Calder Memorial Trophy finalist and the face of the Flames. He’s currently on pace for an 85-point performance and should finish as Calgary’s scoring leader for the third straight season.
Smaller skaters have gone on to long, successful NHL careers in the past. Several, such as Ted Lindsay, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Dave Keon, Rod Gilbert, Marcel Dionne and Denis Savard, were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Some, such as Theoren Fleury and Martin St. Louis, should be in the Hall one day.
But the preference toward bigger players over the past three decades made it more difficult for smaller players to achieve success at the NHL level. That was particularly true during the league’s “Dead Puck Era” from 1995 to 2004, when size and physicality were prized over speed and offensive skill in a period when uncalled obstruction masquaraded as defensive hockey.
Being undersized by NHL standards undoubtedly contributed to several notable current players being passed over in the draft. New York Rangers right wing Mats Zuccarello (5’8”, 179 lbs), Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson (5’8”, 183 lbs), Vegas Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault, (5’9”, 174 lbs) and Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug (5’9”, 186 lbs) are among several who began their NHL careers as undrafted free agents.
Size has also determined a player’s selection in the NHL draft. Gaudreau for example, was a fourth-round selection (104th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft.
He’s not the only notable pint-sized NHL star to be selected in the later rounds. The Boston Bruins chose left wing Brad Marchand (5’9”, 181 lbs) in the third round (71st overall) in the 2006 draft. Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher (5’9”, 181 lbs) was taken in the fifth round (147th overall) in 2010. In the 2008 draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets landed right wing Cam Atkinson (5’8”, 179 lbs) 157th overall in the sixth round.
With the emphasis shifting toward speed and skill in recent years, undersized skaters now appear to have greater value.
Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller (5’10”, 170 lbs) was selected seventh overall in the 2016 draft. In the second round, the Chicago Blackhawks took winger Alex DeBrincat (5’7”, 165 lbs) with the 39th overall pick. Both are among the scoring leaders in this season’s rookie class.
Size and strength will undoubtedly remain key factors in evaluating future NHL players. Promising undersized talent could continue to be passed over in favor of larger skaters. That’s especially true for goaltenders, with many of today’s top netminder standing well above the league’s average height.
Still, if the NHL game continues on its current path that favors swift-skating offensive talent, smaller players could become more prevalent in the near future.