NHL continues to get smaller and better at the same time
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.