Nathan Gerbe is currently injured, but has played nine games for Buffalo this season, scoring two points. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)
In interviewing various scouts and NHL brass this week, an interesting thread began developing in my conversations: While the clutching and grabbing has vanquished from the “new NHL,” the idea that size no longer matters is still a contentious one.
Take, for example, a trio of Swedes eligible for the 2011 draft; defensemen Adam Larsson and Rasmus Bengtsson and center Victor Rask. The one common denominator of the three talented teens is size and that word was the first out of one scout’s mouth.
Similarly, in talking to scouts about the United States League’s best prospects for 2011, smaller players such as Rocco Grimaldi (5-foot-6), Cason Hohmann (5-foot-8) and Austin Czarnik (5-foot-7) were almost put in their own category and compared against each other, not the field.
Grimaldi, who has put up points at every level, is particularly vexing at 5-foot-6. The U.S. national team development program star leads the squad in points with 10 in just five games, also good for second in the league, tied with players who have suited up in several more games. But can he do it at the next level?
When prospects become pros, they often start off in the American League where full-grown men await them in the corners and in open ice. Colorado Avalanche VP of player development, Craig Billington, recently relayed a funny story to me about Chris Stewart’s first game as a member of the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters. Stewart, one of the leading scorers in the NHL this year and no shrimp at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, came off the ice and said to Billington “boy, are those guys big.”
And when you get to the NHL, those big guys are even faster and smarter, too.
Looking at some of the smallest guys in the NHL right now, you’ll find tons of skill, but not as much respect. Nathan Gerbe, all 5-foot-6 of him, was still available with the 142nd pick back in 2005 when the Buffalo Sabres snapped him up. Soon after, he was leading Boston College and the Hockey East conference in goals and, as a junior, points.
When Gerbe was a sophomore, Boston College’s leading scorer was 6-foot-7, 252-pound Brian Boyle, who also led the conference in points. Boyle was taken in the first round, 26th overall by Los Angeles, in 2003. Boyle is now a New York Ranger and playing well on the Blueshirts’ fourth line. At the same time, Gerbe is playing out his role on Buffalo’s last line as well. So Boyle is more than a foot taller than Gerbe, who posted similar numbers for the same school at the same time, but was drafted four rounds later.
Kitchener defenseman Ryan Murphy, listed at 5-foot-10, 176 pounds, is ranked fourth overall for the draft by International Scouting Services, but he’s the only top-10 pick less than six-feet tall. And based on how scouts view the defensive side of his game (the kid has mad hops offensively, Mike Green style), he could fall as the season wears on.
I’m not saying this is a conspiracy - one of my first memories of covering the draft was in 2008 when 6-foot-8 Tyler Myers heartily clapped fellow WHLer and first-rounder Zach Boychuk on the shoulder, congratulating the 5-foot-10 center on his selection by Carolina two picks after Myers went - but it’s interesting how much tougher it is for the little guy to stay on top in pro hockey. The 2011 draft will be another great case study.
Murphy, Grimaldi and others are obviously out to prove doubters wrong, but make no mistake; it can be an uphill battle when you’re less than six-feet tall.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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