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What does the future hold for small players?

May 13, 2013, 1:15 PM EDT

Martin St. Louis AP

Like speedboats among freighters, the majority of undersized hockey players who made it to the NHL did so because they were quicker and more agile than their larger, more powerful counterparts.

But what does the future hold for those that hope to emulate the likes of Tyler Ennis, Jeff Skinner, Steve Sullivan, Cory Conacher, Brian Gionta, and Nathan Gerbe?

Because according to Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, the freighters of the NHL aren’t so slow and cumbersome anymore.

“The difference that I’ve seen in the last three years is, all the big players can skate like the little guys,” said Hitchcock, per Sportsnet’s Mark Spector.

And as if that wasn’t troubling enough for diminutive types, at least one general manager believes the way the game is played (and called) has started once again to favor the bigger player, as it did before the 2004-05 lockout.

“When I took this job, we decided on a style of play that resulted in great success,” said Canucks GM Mike Gillis last week after his team was swept out of the playoffs. “And clearly, the landscape has changed and we have to address those changes. We don’t have a choice. It’s not something I necessarily agree with. But that’s what we face, and that’s what you have to do.

“We have to make the changes and adjustments necessary to compete for a Stanley Cup. It’s my intention to do it and recognize what’s going on and make sure we have a team that’s better equipped.”

Gillis knows better than anyone that the last two teams to win the Stanley Cup did it with size and strength, since both the Bruins and Kings beat Vancouver.

Not that Boston and Los Angeles are bereft of skill; obviously, they aren’t. But there’s no question they favor a heavier, more physical game.

The worry for Canucks fans is that Gillis is overreacting based on a small sample size. What if the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup this year? Chicago finished the regular season ranked 30th in hits. Patrick Kane isn’t a giant. Neither is Jonathan Toews. The ‘Hawks are a great team because they have the puck all the time, and they know what to do with it.

Of course, Kane was drafted first overall, while Toews went third. They aren’t your typical players. Nor, for that matter, is Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis, the league’s top scorer. The reason he’s such a great story is because not many small, undrafted players do what he’s done.

Perhaps Gillis feels that, absent a blue-chip draft position, getting bigger and stronger is his best option in an NHL where big and strong doesn’t have to mean big and slow anymore.

  1. valoisjoeybfeld69 - May 13, 2013 at 1:33 PM

    There is room for small players, but they have to be players who can change the course of a game by their goal scoring and play making abilities. If you can score 25 to 30 goals and rack up 80 points, then there is room for these players. If small players are not scoring they sure as hell cannot win one on one battles against bigger players, or throw body checks without themselves getting hurt, and they can’t stand in front of the net (unless playing the habs. Sorry! Couldn’t resist). Smaller players are more challenged by the fatigue of a long schedule, traveling, and more susceptible to injuries over the long haul of a career.

  2. lostpuppysyndrome - May 13, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    I tend to think the NHL painted itself into a corner by using smaller rinks. It’s too expensive to widen the rinks, but I’m inclined to think it would make a huge difference in the style and speed of the game.

    • imleftcoast - May 13, 2013 at 2:47 PM

      Nothing would make the game more exciting than Olympic sized rinks. With $6m less in expenses next year, it would be nice gesture from the owners. On the other hand, Aquilini in Vancouver is actually going to try and increase ticket prices.

  3. phillyphanatic77 - May 13, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    This is no new trend. Small players have always been scrutinized. Questioned on whether they can withstand the pounding of an NHL season. If you have your choice between a 6’5″ center and 5’10” center most GMs will take the size, even if the small guy has more skill. It’s not some new revelation. But eventhough size seems to matter, if you are skilled most teams will find a place for you. St. Louis and Conacher went undrafted while Danny Briere and Jeff Skinner were first round picks… so eventhough large players are preferable, there will always be a place for diminutive players with talent. Teams are, and will always be, looking for hockey players. Regardless of size.

  4. billyhauntswizards - May 13, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    it’s a matter of can small players learn to play big? for example, Mats Zuccarello on NYR. He hits everything in sight, agitates, and still dekes and scores every now and then. Players like that will survive, while the Tyler Ennis and Jeff Skinner type, probably won’t.

    • chicagobtech - May 13, 2013 at 3:28 PM

      Andrew Shaw has been hitting a little over his weight class in the series against Minnesota. He’s starting to learn, I just hope he doesn’t end up going over the line while taking a run at somebody. Getting suspended is not what he needs to have happen, not after that crap suspension last season when Smith played possom on the ice in the Phoenix series.

  5. letsgopens8771 - May 13, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    Not only is speed an advantage for smaller players, but what I have noticed with guys like Gallagher, Gerbe, St. Louis, and Shaw is that they can get in those tough dirty areas, take some beatings in front of the net, and make tough plays like that, which is why they are good. Go little dudes! (Except Gionta, I don’t like him at all)

  6. scoocha - May 13, 2013 at 4:59 PM

    Future is simple for small players: big hits and then unwarranted suspensions to follow.

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