NHL con­tin­ues to get smaller and bet­ter at the same time

The Province - - NEWS -

When Steve Yz­er­man took over in Tampa, he is­sued a man­date to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s scouts and player de­vel­op­ment de­part­ment that sounded a lot like the di­rec­tive is­sued by ev­ery NHL fran­chise.

The Light­ning, ta da, would build their team around fast, skilled, hard-work­ing play­ers. Great. Real bomb­shell there, Ste­vie Y.

But it was the sub­text of Yz­er­man’s de­cree that was the real story. The Bolts would draft for speed and skill, ir­re­spec­tive of the size of the player. Again, a lot of or­ga­ni­za­tions preached the same thing but the Bolts ac­tu­ally put Yz­er­man’s dic­tum into prac­tice.

Ten years ago, that was heresy in the NHL. To­day, well, just look at the standings where the Light­ning own the best record in the NHL, and they’ve done it with a for­ward group that is barely tall enough to qual­ify for the rides at Dis­ney­land.

“I think it’s an evo­lu­tion over the last three or four years,” says Canucks gen­eral man­ager Jim Ben­ning. “In a per­fect world, you want play­ers with size who can skate and do all the skill things. But if they can’t skate they have trouble in to­day’s game.

“It’s changed be­cause of the speed of the game. It’s so fast now. What we’re see­ing is speed trumps size and I think that’s the trend you’ll see go­ing for­ward.”

Even if we’re see­ing it now. It’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point the ex­act mo­ment the NHL down­sized but you just have to look around the league to un­der­stand the per­cep­tion of the smaller player has changed.

In Tampa, four of the Light­ning’s top five scor­ers are 5-foot-11 or un­der, led by Nikita Kucherov, who was se­lected in the sec­ond round of Yz­er­man’s sec­ond year as GM. Yz­er­man has since stepped down, re­placed by Julien Brise­Bois.

It’s a sim­i­lar story around the league. Five of the top nine NHL scor­ers head­ing into Satur­day’s ac­tion are 5-11 or un­der. The two lead­ing Hart Tro­phy can­di­dates at this point of the sea­son are likely Kucherov, who’s gen­er­ously listed at 5-11 and 178 pounds, and Cal­gary’s Johnny Gau­dreau, all 5-9 and 165 pounds of him.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery NHL team also has a smaller, im­pact player in their lineup, whether it’s the Black­hawks’ 5-7, 165pound Alex DeBrin­cat, who might score 40 goals this sea­son, 5-9 Jonathan Marches­sault, the Ve­gas Golden Knights’ sniper who had 21 points in last sea­son’s play­offs, or the Blue Jack­ets’ Artemi Pa­narin, who goes 5-11 and weighs 168 pounds.

This isn’t to say some­one has shrunk the NHL. The av­er­age height of the league has re­mained around 6-1 for the last 20 years. But, over that same span, the av­er­age weight has dropped from a peak of 206.3 pounds in 2005-06 to 199.3 pounds this sea­son.

Said one Western Con­fer­ence scout: “It used to be all about size. Now it’s about speed and skill and the pack­age isn’t as im­por­tant.”

The Van­cou­ver Canucks ap­pear to be on the right side of his­tory for one of the few times. Two years ago, the Canucks took un­der­nour­ished Swedish cen­tre Elias Pet­ters­son fifth over­all ahead of more sub­stan­tial fig­ures like Cody Glass, Casey Mit­tel­stadt and Michael Ras­mussen.

Pet­ters­son is the run­away leader in the Calder Tro­phy race for top rookie and has the look of a fran­chise-chang­ing player.

“We talked about (Pet­ters­son’s size) but he was so smart and skilled,” said Ben­ning. “We just felt he’d fig­ure out a way.”

Last year, the Canucks se­lected 5-10, 175-pound de­fence­man Quinn Hughes sev­enth, over big­ger blue-lin­ers like Evan Bouchard and Noah Dobson. Hughes now projects as the power-play quar­ter­back and of­fencedriver the Canucks have lacked on the back end since, well, for­ever.

“I think when you see play­ers like that have suc­cess, it gives you the con­fi­dence to pick them,” said Judd Brack­ett, the Canucks’ di­rec­tor of ama­teur scout­ing. “You still need a bit of ev­ery­thing, but you’re not go­ing to be afraid to pick smaller play­ers.”

Ev­i­dently. Last sum­mer, the Canucks took for­ward Tyler Mad­den, who goes 5-11 and weighs 150 pounds, in the third round. Mad­den im­pressed at the re­cently con­cluded IIHF World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onship, play­ing a top­six role for Team USA.

Brack­ett was asked if the trend to­ward speed and skill has made some scouts re-eval­u­ate their pri­or­i­ties.

“I think some of the more tra­di­tional guys still have things in­grained in them,” he said. “But I think that’s what makes our group ef­fec­tive. We push each other to reach a res­o­lu­tion. I think it’s good to have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. It leads to good de­ci­sions.”

It still takes a special breed to make it in the NHL as a smaller player. That much hasn’t changed. What has changed is the in­sti­tu­tional bias to­ward those play­ers. The­o­ren Fleury and Martin St. Louis were trail­blaz­ers but they were also mem­bers of, er, a very small club.

That’s changed. So has the game — and it’s been for the bet­ter.

Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov and Colum­bus winger Artemi Pa­narin are just two of the play­ers un­der six feet tall who are hav­ing a big im­pact on the NHL in re­cent years, with Kucherov lead­ing the league in points this sea­son.

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