The Sabres took 5-foot-9, 150-pound Tyler Ennis with the 26th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)
“Tyler Ennis, who Buffalo drafted in the first round, is a tiny guy. Prior to the lockout I don’t know if he would have had a chance to be drafted in the first round. Somebody would have given him an opportunity, but would they have stepped up in the first round to take him? That’s the big question.” – Paul Charles, amateur scout, Minnesota Wild.
New rules adopted after the NHL lockout have undeniably opened up the game, creating better flow and allowing creative skill to breathe and breed.
Junior scouts acknowledge this re-invention in the NHL has trickled down to their level of the game and changed how they examine players. Take one look at Team Canada’s smallish entry in the 2009 World Junior Championship; it clearly shows you what kind of shift has been happening over the past few years.
Having a solid frame is still – and always will be - a big part of becoming an NHL player, because strength is one of a skater’s most important attributes. But size isn’t the be-all and end-all. Recently, smaller, faster skaters have been taken earlier in NHL drafts.
“There’s less of a fear there,” said Mike Futa, a scout with the Los Angeles Kings. “If you’re that skilled and you can make plays and have good core strength, you’ll be able to play at the next level.”
Still, a big player will usually be noticed far earlier in his career than a smaller player. Having that natural advantage will always be a major turn-on, but as they close in on the professional ranks, the large guys have to be able to keep up with the smaller ones if their stock is to remain high.
“Zach Budish (2009 draft eligible) has been on everyone’s radar for years because he’s been 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds forever,” a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers said. “He can skate, though, so he’ll probably be taken early.” (note: Since this interview, Budish tore his ACL playing football and will miss the entire season)
With players less than six-feet tall dominating NHL score sheets, it’s hard not to jump on the smaller-is-better bandwagon. But while the Patrick Kanes and Bryan Littles of the world are changing the philosophy of NHL team head offices, nifty hands, good speed and smooth moves are still only a part of the overall package a player needs to succeed.
A player such as Rob Schremp of the Oilers, as an example, who owns impeccable stickhandling skills, dominated the junior ranks and notched 145 points in his last year in the Ontario League.
However, a few scouts noted that because of his natural talents, Schremp fell into bad habits in junior and didn’t progress in areas of the game he needed to learn. As a result, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound center, picked 25th overall by Edmonton in 2004, is having trouble translating his talents into NHL ice time.
Then you have guys like Theoren Fleury. A terrific talent in junior hockey, Fleury was smart away from the puck and learned about all aspects of the game. He scored more goals in his draft year than Joe Sakic and was in a tight race with the Avalanche great for the scoring title the following year. On draft day 1987, however, 151 picks separated the 5-foot-11 sniping Sakic and the 5-foot-6 flashy Fleury, largely because of size.
Those days, for the most part, are over.
“Fleury went in the eighth round,” Paul Charles explained. “Here’s a guy who was a tremendous junior hockey player for the Moose Jaw Warriors. He tied Joe Sakic for the scoring race one year and he goes in the eighth round of the draft! But, if there’s a Theoren Fleury out there right now, he’s a first-rounder.”
A Scout's Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.