If you're a regular reader, you know that one of my pet peeves is the treatment of small players by most professional scouts and hockey management. I've written about it quite often, in a variety of venues, to the point that you're probably sick of reading about it. It's probably the one thing I write about the most often. I write about it so often because it's very important. NHL teams are short-changing players, short-changing themselves and short-changing their fans due to their myopia when it comes to a player's size.
Whenever I read some scouting report that says a player is “too small for the NHL”, I can feel my blood pressure rising. I always want to ask, “When you say he's too small for the NHL, do you mean that he's too small like Martin St. Louis was too small for the NHL, or is he too small like Theo Fleury was too small for the NHL? Or maybe you mean he's too small like Brian Rafalski was too small for the NHL, or perhaps that he's too small like Brian Gionta was too small for the NHL? He could be too small like Mats Naslund was too small for the NHL, or even too small like Mike Cammalleri was too small for the NHL?” You get the idea.
Some may think that the idea that small players can succeed in the NHL is naïve, perhaps the foolish suggestion of someone who only looks at the numbers and doesn't know how things really work. I can't really blame you if you feel this way; well-respected hockey insiders have been using the “too small for the NHL” platitude for as long as I can remember, while singing the praises of the latest linebacker on skates. I've certainly been told by at least one pro scout, years ago, that the idea is naïve, to put it politely. Again, I really can't blame a scout for this; they're paid to evaluate players based on what they see, based on their subjective observations. But it you look at the evidence, you'll see that my assertion is true.
The insiders have their justifications, of course. The response is usually something along the lines of “We have nothing against small players per se, just small players who play small. If a small player doesn't play small, we like him.” You've probably seen this claim as often as I have. Let's assume, for the moment, that this vague and ill-defined idea of “playing small” is a real thing (which is quite an assumption). If that is true, then professional scouts have demonstrated absolutely no ability to differentiate between small players who play small and small players who don't.
You might point out that the diminutive Patrick Kane was drafted first overall in 2007. Scouts saw that he would be able to hack it in the NHL, and that has indeed proven to be the case. But for every example like this, I can give you a bunch that went the other way. Martin St. Louis is a great example, since he won a scoring championship and the Hart Trophy in the midst of the clutch-and-grab era of the game, when small players were supposed to be at their greatest disadvantage. If he is not an example of a small player who doesn't play small, then there can be no such example. Yet the scouts completely missed his ability to not play small. He was undrafted in his age-17 season. Fine, you might say, he was headed to the NCAA and didn't want to lose his eligibility (which he would have in those days by being drafted), and so didn't opt in to the draft that year (1993). But he was also wasn't drafted in 1994 or 1995, despite big numbers at the University of Vermont. Every NHL team passed on drafting him at least a dozen times each; he had to sign with an independent IHL team and produce a point per game before an NHL team would even take a sniff, which Calgary finally did. Until Craig Button released him (well done Craig!), and he signed with Tampa Bay.
Examples like this, though rarely as extreme as St. Louis' case, are abundant. Take any small player who has had success at the NHL level, and look at where he was drafted (if indeed, he was drafted at all; Dino Ciccarelli wasn't). If you compare his draft position to his junior numbers (in a relatively sophisticated way), chances are you'll find a discrepancy and it will not be in the player's favor. It still happens every year, although it's not quite as bad as it was in the “dead puck” era of the late 1990s. Jordan Weal, for example, was a fourth-round pick this year, despite recording 100 points in the WHL.
But of course not every small player makes it in the NHL, even if his junior numbers are outstanding, as any insider is likely to tell you. This is undeniably true, and I'll never claim otherwise. Some small players with big numbers never do much in pro hockey. But the problem here is that size is only one of many possible explanations, yet it is seized upon at the first opportunity. Small players are called “too small for the NHL” en masse, and the ones who do not pan out are held up as proof. This completely ignores the small players that do succeed in the NHL*, and it completely ignores the fact that many large players don't pan out either. Why are the hulking duds not said to be “too big for the NHL”? It's a post-hoc rationalization; if a small player doesn't succeed in the NHL, his size is used as a reason. But the professionals are unable to predict it before the fact.
This idea that bigger is better is so deeply ingrained throughout professional hockey that it will take a good deal of time to die out, if indeed there is an inpetus for it to do so. The problem is that insider beliefs tend to be self-sustaining. Hockey insiders learn from other hockey insiders, and it seems that when you gain admittance to the inside, the clubhouse has a sign on the door with the club's motto: “You must be at least this tall to be judged solely on your ability to play hockey.” And this thought process infests the draft; since big players are considered to be good players, then drafting big players should be considered a success. There's no incentive to pick “risky” small players, since big players are what teams are after. They should be after the best players, but since size itself is seen as a huge positive quality, big players get drafted far more than small ones. Again, it isn't quite as bad as it was 10 years ago, but the effect is pernicious and is far from dead. When a team really becomes willing to overlook a player's size and they draft purely based on the ability to play hockey, it will have an advantage over other teams. Some teams might already be doing this; for example, Colorado in the past couple of drafts has done very well according to the Projectinator.
As an aside, I should point out that size is not the only thing that scouts often fail to value properly. Scouts do a good job at evaluating a player's ability in each facet of the game they evaluate, but they often do a poor job in combining these evaluations into a whole. If the player has a flaw, they often overestimate the effect that flaw has on the player's overall game. Luc Robitaille, as a famous example, was drafted 171st overall because his skating was bad. The scouts couldn't see the forest of his overall hockey ability because they saw the tree of his skating as this giant redwood. But it should only have been seen as a normal-sized tree, and the forest should have been plainly visible. Another less extreme example of skating getting vastly overvalued is with Yanic Perreault, who had to wait until his third season of eligibility before being drafted, and then had to put up 375 points in 271 minor league games before being given a real shot in the NHL.
My argument can be summed up in two points:
- There are so many exceptions to the “too small for the NHL” idea that it cannot be considered anything remotely resembling a rule, or even a guideline.
- Scouts have consistently failed to identify which small players will succeed in the NHL, which implies (since scouts are not incompetent at seeing differences between players) that there is no identifiable difference between small players who “play small” and those who do not. Some small players will not succeed at the NHL level, but that is no different than big players.
If a small player doesn't fulfill his junior potential and succeed in the NHL, “he's too small” is a throw-away line that produces no insight. It is a subsitute for insight. Many small players do succeed in the NHL, so size iteself cannot be taken as a reason for failure.
(Note: * for example: Keith Action, Donald Audette, Jason Blake, Pat Boutette, Brian Bradley, Daniel Briere, Aaron Broten, Neal Broten, Valeri Bure, Pavel Bure, Randy Burridge, Mike Cammalleri, Colin Campbell, Guy Charron, Dino Ciccarelli, Marcel Dionne, Ray Ferraro, Theo Fleury, Jim Fox, Danny Gare, Curt Giles, Brian Gionta, Butch Goring, Gerry Hart, Benoit Hogue, Gerry Howatt, Jiri Hudler, Doug Jarvis, Mark Johnson, Stan Jonathan, Steve Kasper, Dennis Kearns, Saku Koivu, Slava Kozlov, Bobby Lalonde, Claude Lapointe, Hakan Loob, Morris Lukowich, Todd Marchant, Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin, Dennis Maruk, Rick Meagher, Brian Mullen, Joe Mullen, Mats Naslund, Simon Nolet, Mike O'Connell, Ziggy Palffy, J-P Parise, Dennis Polonich, Brian Rafalski, Mark Recchi, Robert Reichel, Mike Rogers, Cliff Ronning, Sergei Samsonov, Bobby Schmautz, Doug Smail, Stan Smyl, Martin St. Louis, Steve Sullivan, Don Sweeney, Tony Tanti, Errol Thompson, Darcy Tucker, Ed Van Impe, Pat Verbeek, Bryan Watson, Joe Watson, Ray Whitney, Ron Wilson, and Mike York).