Smaller players finding roles in NHL thanks to bigger emphasis on speed and skill

0:53 | NHL
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Wednesday March 15th, 2017

Coming off a second-straight 51-goal season for the OHL’s Erie Otters, Alex DeBrincat should’ve been one of the most highly-touted prospects and, at minimum, a slam-dunk first round pick in the 2016 NHL draft.

He wasn’t.

Round one came and went, with DeBrincat sitting in the stands, watching nine other OHL players get their names called. On Day Two, two more league-mates came off the board before the Blackhawks made him the 39th pick. Of those players, only Matthew Tkachuk, the No. 6 selection by the Calgary Flames, posted more points than DeBrincat (107 to 101), and none of them scored more goals.

The numbers were staggering, but there was something about the Michigan-native that made scouts weary: his size. DeBrincat checks in at 5’7” and 170 pounds. His colleagues in the hockey world tend to be much bigger, and if he were taller, he might've been talked about as a potential top-10 pick in the draft. Instead, he’s viewed as a wild card.

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“I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’m too small to do this and too small to do that, but I think I’ve proved them wrong,” says DeBrincat.

The 19-year-old winger has been even more prolific in his third season with the Otters, racking up 63 goals and 123 points in 61 games. In total, he’s scored 165 goals and 328 points over 189 contests. Still, DeBrincat has his critics, and likely will in the foreseeable future.

“There’s not much you can do, other than play your game and, if they end up liking you then you did your job,” he says. “If they don’t end up liking you, that’s a note to me that I didn’t do enough. If a team is really that worried about size, then so be it. It’s something that I’ve had to deal with my whole life, and it’s just something you have to block out.”

Size can definitely be a concern, but hockey has evolved in ways that allow smaller players to be successful. Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson, a 5’9” powder keg that can skate, grind and produce, says the increasing emphasis on speed has opened a wormhole for skaters like him.

“It’s a faster game than it was,” he says. “The rules are different; there are more penalties for hooks and holds, so that changes the game a little bit for small players to get into the league. It’s a really fast game out there.”

Shorter players in the NHL of yesteryear were mainly dynamic and highly-productive forwards, like Martin St. Louis and Theo Fleury. They laid the groundwork for the next generation, Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Marchessault notes.

“For a guy like Theo Fleury, back then, the hockey was really tough,” says Marchessault. “A lot of hooking and not as much skating. That’s a guy that needs to get more credit, because he was good even in that time. Marty St. Louis was great because he brought speed to the game and just showed the people that it’s not just strong and big guys anymore, it’s speed and smaller players that make the game exciting and add more skill to the game.”

Following those footsteps, a new wave of talent has swept across the league in recent years, something that DeBrincat interprets as a crystal-clear message.

“You have guys like (Johnny) Gaudreau and Tyler Johnson that are doing really well in the NHL, and it shows guys like me that they can play at the NHL level,” says DeBrincat. “I think it’s coming into the game. Not fully does the size not matter; that’s not out of the game. But, I think it’s working towards that way.”

It appears the NHL is starting to embrace that reality. Ten years ago, 29 players listed at 5’9” or shorter were on league rosters and 18 of them played in at least 30 regular season games. Fast forward to 2016-17, and the number of players on NHL clubs rises to 38, with 24 hitting the 30-game mark.

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One of the most notable names among the slew of smaller players is Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand, tied with Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals (35) and sits two points behind Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane (76) for top in the NHL. At 5’9”, the ‘Little Ball of Hate’ has found his touch late in the season, racking up 25 goals and 43 points in 30 games since the calendar flipped to 2017.

A year after Marchand was taken in the third round of the 2006 draft, there were only three players listed at 5’9” or smaller selected. In the 2016 draft, 14 of the 211 picks fell under that mark.

The offensive dynamos are still present, but smaller players like Arvidsson are taking on more diverse roles. The 23-year-old Swede is having a respectable sophomore campaign with 50 points in 67 games for Nashville, but he’s also helped pace the team’s penalty kill and isn’t afraid to work hard for puck possession. That, Arvidsson says, is something he learned from watching Swedish hockey legend Peter Forsberg, a player he looked up to figuratively and literally.

“(Forsberg) never gave up, he worked hard and he was an incredible player,” says Arvidsson. “Not saying I’m playing like him right now, but that’s a guy I watched growing up. I try to play a gritty game and a hard-working game.”

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How do you outwork bigger players and win those battles? The 5’9” Marchessault offers his solution:

“You need to get into the corner and get out with the puck as quick as possible,” says Marchessault. “My biggest thing, if you play against a guy like Shea Weber, is to move your feet. Don’t give him time to come and eliminate your space. If you go quicker, you have more time and space, and that’s how you’ve gotta win your battles. When you’re a little guy, you’ve gotta be quicker and smarter.”

Yogi Berra once suggested that baseball is “90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” Assuming the same holds true for hockey, DeBrincat has his own prescription for success as a smaller player.

“On the ice, I don’t really think about a size disadvantage,” he says. “I’ll go to the front of the net if I need to. I’ve tried to fight some pretty big guys in my time in the OHL, and obviously it might not have been the best idea, but on the ice, I don’t really see a size difference. It’s all in your head. If you think you’re smaller, you’re gonna play scared. If you think you’re just as tall as them, you’re gonna play your game.”

Despite having self-confidence and learning how to navigate the terrain at a smaller size, older schools of thought still present a major challenge for players like DeBrincat and Marchessault.

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The 26-year-old Panthers forward believes he could’ve made the NHL sooner if not for the negative height-driven perception of his game.

“I think I could’ve, but I’ve become more mature, more strong physically,” says Marchessault, who put up 239 points in 254 games with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts before stints with the Blue Jackets and Lightning. He signed a two-year deal with Florida this past off-season and has netted 22 goals and 42 points in 61 games on the season. “It would’ve certainly helped if an organization believed in me. When you get drafted to an organization that, they love you, they want you to get better and maybe they will give you the chances. In my situation, nobody ever drafted me, so it was hard to get those chances. I needed to create the most of every situation, and I was able to go through it.”

Like those who’ve come before him and those who will follow, DeBrincat is determined to be the next little big thing in the NHL and he’ll need to overcome many obstacles on the road ahead.

“A lot of people are going to try to put you down, but you can’t listen to it,” he says. “If you keep working hard, people are going to notice you and If you want it that bad, you’re gonna get there.”

“If you’re looking at a 6’3” guy and a 5’7” guy, you’re obviously gonna get caught by the 6’3” guy and look at him first,” says DeBrincat. “But the 5’7” guy, if he turns out to be better, I don’t think there’s any reason why they shouldn’t be able to play. I just play my game and hope people notice me.”

Typically, bigger players have to prove they can’t stick and smaller ones have to prove they can. Marchessault agrees, but he suggests there’s a silver lining.

“Big players maybe have more potential, but the smaller players work harder because they need to compensate with something that makes them a little better than the bigger players,” says Marchessault. “You’ve gotta be better at something than the other guys.”

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