By now, regular readers know my opinion on the idea that small players can't make it in the NHL. Today I want to look at one specific reason that large players are supposed to be better than small players: the assertion that larger players are, all else being equal, better defensively than small players. This is no strawman; this argument has been presented to me directly on several occasions, both before and after the advent of Puck Prospectus. The idea is that large players have greater reach, and can cover larger portions of the ice, thus making them objectively better than small players, all else being equal.
Leaving aside the fact that all else is never really equal, and leaving aside the fact that smaller players tend to be faster skaters than larger ones (and speed is useful on defense), let's look at the evidence, such as it is. We'll restrict ourselves to forwards, since that's the group of players I'm working with at this point in Up And Coming. The trouble with looking at defense, of course, is that we do not have reliable defensive statistics at this point. The best evidence we have for defensive play is indirect, and typically reflects impressions of defensive skill, rather than actual skill. Specifically, such evidence relies on the player's coach, and how he uses the player. A player seen to be strong defensively will kill penalties and match up against the opposing team's top scoring line.
One such source of indirect evidence are the winners of the Frank J. Selke Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL forward who demonstrates the most skill at the defensive aspect of the game. The winner of the Selke is determined by the professional Hockey Writers' Association, home to many of the “too small for the NHL” crowd. While the Selke is a bit suspect in its reflection of defensive excellence (it often suffers from an attention effect), it does reflect a certain consensus among hockey insiders as to forwards who excel at defense. It relies on indirect evidence as mentioned above; a strong defensive player who for whatever reason is only used on the power play and put in a solely offensive role will not get consideration for the Selke, since he has no real opportunity to demonstrate his defense. That being said, the Selke does reflect insider opinion, on the whole, and that's useful in itself.
The first winner of the Selke, and still the only four-time winner, is Bob Gainey of the Canadiens who won each year from 1978 through 1981, the first four years the trophy was awarded. Gainey's 6-2, and despite poor scoring stats in junior was drafted #8 overall in 1973, and went on to have an outstanding career. He's one that a stats-based drafting system would likely overlook. Not a good start for “my side”.
After Gainey, though, that we get a run of smaller players winning the award:
Year Selke Winner Height
1982 Steve Kasper 5-8
1983 Bobby Clarke 5-10
1984 Doug Jarvis 5-9
1985 Craig Ramsay 5-10
Kasper was underdrafted, going 81st in 1980 despite very despite strong stats. Clarke was drafted #17 in 1969, and that was likely later than he should have gone. Jarvis and Ramsay, on the other hand, were drafted ahead of where their scoring stats would suggest. In terms of drafting players, then, we have a mixed bag here.
Troy Murray, a 6-1 forward drafted out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 1980, breaks up the string of sub-6-footers in 1986. He's hardly a giant, but 6-1 is a pretty typical height for an NHL forward. Then we move on:
Year Selke Winner Height
1987 Dave Poulin 5-11
1988 Guy Carbonneau 5-11
1989 Guy Carbonneau 5-11
1990 Rick Meagher 5-8
1991 Dirk Graham 5-11
1992 Guy Carbonneau 5-11
1993 Doug Gilmour 5-11
Defensive specialist Rick Meagher was both very small, and undrafted. Doug Gilmour is one of those players who probably won the award based more on his offense than his defense. A solid defensive player had an offensive explosion which attracted a lot of attention, and that likely garnered him a lot of Selke votes. Gilmour's also an interesting case in terms of draft prospecting; he scored only 35 points in 51 games in his age-17 season, and went undrafted. His age-18 season was good, recording 119 points in 67 games, and he was drafted by St. Louis at #134, which was probably a bit low based on his numbers. He had an excellent NHL career, far exceeding expectations based on his numbers. On the other hand, he also far exceeded expectations based on his draft position. The numbers and the scouts both missed on Doug Gilmour.
The Selke winners from 1994 through 1996, Sergei Federov (twice) and Ron Francis, both break the magic 6-foot barrier. Francis is still the tallest ever winner of the Selke, standing 6-3. He's not generally thought of as a big player, given his soft hands and significant offensive skills, but he was a pretty imposing player. Moving on again:
Year Selke Winner Height
1997 Mike Peca 5-11
1998 Jere Lehtinen 6-0
1999 Jere Lehtinen 6-0
2000 Steve Yzerman 5-11
2001 John Madden 5-11
2002 Mike Peca 5-11
2003 Jere Lehtinen 6-0
2004 Kris Draper 5-11
Once again we have a noticeable lack of giant players. Three-time winner Jere Lehtinen just makes the 6-0 mark. The past three winners, Rob Brind'Amour in 2006 and again in 2007 (6-1), and Pavel Datsyuk (5-11), are also far below the height needed to be considered large in this league. In a league full of 6-3 and 6-4 players, these guys may not be puny, but they aren't nearly the biggest.
Ultimately, the question boils down to this: if size is really an important factor in defensive effectiveness, why are so many of the best defensive forwards considered small for NHL purposes? If size were important for defense, it would not be suprising for a few smaller players to be the best defensive forwards, but all else being equal larger players would dominate the list. In reality, for the last 26 years, the award has been dominated by players less than 6 feet tall, with the majority of the remaining players at 6-0 or just over. Since 1982 only one players taller than 6-1 has won the award, that being Ron Francis in 1995. This would be a remarkable statistical anomaly, if size were important to a forward's defense. The simpler explanation, based on this evidence, is that size is not important to an NHL forward's defense.
Now you may argue that 5-11 isn't really considered small in the NHL. Of course, I'm not arguing that a 5-11 player is considered “too small for the NHL”; such a label is generally reserved for players 5-9 and below. However, a player standing 6-0 is by no means a large player by NHL standards. The 6-foot mark is sometimes portrayed as the magic threshold for NHL size, but this really isn't the case. There are enough 5-11 and 5-10 forwards in the game to disprove that notion.
There appear to be two lessons here. First, it does appear that scouts are able to identify defensive skill in draft prospects, at least to some degree. Several Selke winners have had unimpressive junior stats, yet were drafted high and went on to have solid or excellent NHL careers. This is not universally applicable, of course, but there are a number of players it applies to.
Second, it appears that even insiders don't believe size matters for defense, at least where forwards are concerned. Many of the forwards with the best defensive reputations are less than the “standard” 6 feet required to be considered big enough to compete in the NHL. This applies equally to recent seasons and back to the early years of the Selke award. If smaller forwards routinely win the Selke award, how important can size be for defense?