Theo Fleury (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
For all the praise heaped on Tyler Johnson and his 5-foot-8 frame, there are several players shorter than him who've done great things in the playoffs. Here's a look at five big-impact little forwards from hockey history.
Tyler Johnson is short and good at hockey. After two-and-a-half rounds of watching the guy lead his Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, we’ve been hearing the same thing on every nightly broadcast. He’s pretty darn talented, but he’s not the first small guy to do big things.
There have been several big-game, undersized players who’ve stepped up in the playoffs over the years. Some played back in the black-and-white TV days. Others skated when radio was high-tech. One of them is stilling playing in Martin St-Louis, but we'll leave him off the list because he’s still not done writing his legacy.
He's also the same height as Johnson, and as much as we praised these two 5-foot-8 players for overcoming their size deficiencies, there are other historic playoff standouts who were even smaller.
Here are some of the best.
Theoren Fleury is the smallest player on this list at 5-foot-6, but that only makes him more impressive. Fleury’s struggles with depression and substance abuse are well-documented, but he also had the deck stacked against him simply in terms of his size. He played a skilled and aggressive style that put him on the score sheet and in the penalty box on a regular basis. Nevermind that he was half a foot shorter than most guys.
Fleury was a young but valuable contributor for the 1989 Stanley Cup-winning Calgary Flames, potting five goals, 11 points and 24 penalty minutes in 22 games. Three of his goals were also game-winners that year.
The native of Oxbow, Sask. Tallied 34 goals, 79 points and 116 penalty minutes in 77 playoff games over his career. He went to the post-season seven times with the Calgary Flames, then helped the Colorado Avalanche to the Western Conference Final in 1999. That last playoff was Fleury’s best from a statistical standpoint, as his five goals and 17 points in 18 games tied him for fifth in post-season scoring.
Fleury doesn’t have as many Stanley Cups as some of the other guys on this list, but he’s the only player here who produced at a point-per-game pace in the playoffs.
They used to say Maurice Richard was too fragile to play hockey. His kid brother Henri looked even smaller.
The 'Pocket Rocket' was a 5-foot-7 center on some of the greatest Montreal Canadiens teams ever assembled, and he went to the playoffs many, many times during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. In fact, Henri Richard has his name on the Stanley Cup more times than any other player in history, after winning 11 titles with the Habs.
Naturally, he scored a point or two in the playoffs. Richard appeared in a staggering 180 playoff games, notching 49 goals, 129 points and 181 penalty minutes in that time.
Many players have surpassed his playoff point totals over the decades, but it’s hard to believe there will ever be a player to match this Hall of Famer’s towering record of 11 Stanley Cups.
Known as 'The Roadrunner,' Yvan Cournoyer was blazing fast and tiny at 5-foot-7. The Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer scored 64 goals and 127 points in 147 playoff games between 1965 and 1978, capturing 10 Stanley Cups in that time, including a few as captain. He was considered a one-dimensional scorer early in his career, but eventually flourished into a two-way player and leader for the Habs.
His best playoff performance came in 1973, when he scored 15 goals and 25 points in 17 games en route to the championship. He also had the Stanley Cup-clinching goal against the Blackhawks that post-season.
Mats Naslund was 5-foot-7. Mats Naslund played for the Montreal Canadiens. Mats Naslund won a Stanley Cup.
If this is starting to sound repetitive, it’s only because the Montreal Canadiens have a long history of success with small, skilled forwards. Naslund came over from Sweden after the sun had already set on the great Canadiens dynasty, but he was still part of some fantastic teams. Trouble was, the 1980s Habs couldn’t quite run with the likes of the New York Islander and Edmonton Oiler dynasties, so Naslund would play a few rounds, then miss out on the final prize most years.
Still, he was with the Canadiens to win his lone Stanley Cup in 1986, when some kid named Patrick Roy backstopped the team to victory over the Calgary Flames.
Naslund scored 35 goals and 92 points in 102 career playoff games, including a seven-goal, 22-point run through 17 games in 1987. He also appeared in five playoff games for the Boston Bruins in 1995, after playing four seasons in Sweden.
Brian Gionta’s numbers aren’t in the same stratosphere as the other players on this list, but 5-foot-7 players who can string together a long NHL career are few and far between these days. Gionta is the only significant playoff scorer under 5-foot-8 who is still active right now, and he has quite the lengthy playoff resume. Gionta won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003 and has been a useful part on several Devils and Montreal Canadiens teams over the years. He has 32 goals and 68 points in 112 playoff games, including a nine-goal, 15-point run in 2010 with the Habs.
His points aren’t close to the other guys on this list, but he’s played a Hell of a lot of playoff hockey – 25th most among active NHLers. The 36-year-old may never make it back to the dance if he finishes his career in Buffalo, but he's still got a lot to be proud of.
For a small guy like Gionta, longevity is an accomplishment in its own right.