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Big and tough is what NHL is looking for

by Archives March 7, 2001
Come draft-day in the National Hockey League, two words can be heard a few inches away from each teams’ draft table: big and tough.
These are the words NHL general managers (GM) drool over when discussing prospects. If he’s big and tough and is a good skater with decent scoring skills, they think of it as a bonus.
It is not a new trend to favour the big, towering player. In fact, the last time
an NHL team picked a player under 6-feet tall first overall was in 1985, when the Toronto Maple Leafs selected 5-foot-11 winger Wendel Clark. However, even he was picked for his toughness.
Another interesting side note is that at last year’s draft, only three of the 30 players chosen in the first round were under 6-feet, and the three were listed at a height of 5-foot-11-and-a-half.
However, this season, small players are playing big!
For the record, small players will hereafter mean anyone under 5-foot-11, but special mention should go to Paul Kariya, listed at 5-foot-11. If the NHL had more finesse players like him, there would be no attendance problems anywhere.
Another player who deserves merit for playing bigger than his size is Joe Sakic, who’s the same height as Kariya.
Sakic has been a consistent scoring threat over his entire career and may bag his first Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer, although Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr seems destined to win yet another scoring title.
The New York Rangers’ Theoren Fleury (all 5-foot-6 of him) and Atlanta’s diminutive duo of Donald Audette (5-foot-8) and Ray Ferraro (5-foot-9) are leading the charge for small players and showing that they can dominate, as they are all in the top ten in scoring. Also in the top ten is Los Angeles’ Zigmund Palffy, an inch taller than Ferraro.
The NHL’s leading goal scorer is also on the short size. Florida’s Pavel Bure has scored 44 goals for an underachieving team. One of the reasons for Bure’s success is his linemate, pint-sized Ray Whitney. The two of them are so quick that covering them with hulking forwards just doesn’t work.
The lightest player in the NHL is Chicago’s Steve Sullivan, weighing in at 155 pounds. Almost no one is better than the 5-foot-9 Sullivan on breakaways. He’s also leading the Blackhawks in points this season with 66, including 31 goals.
Three of the brightest forward prospects the NHL has on the horizon are all on the small side.
Phoenix’s Daniel Briere (5-foot-9) appears to have finally nailed down a regular spot on the team. It’s unfortunate that he had to dwindle down in Springfield – Phoenix’s farm team – in the American Hockey League, but he now appears destined for a future All-Star birth.
Edmonton’s Mike Comrie, who stands the same height as Briere, is another diminutive prospect who appears to have earned himself a spot on an NHL club and may be a tad quicker than the Coyote.
Another prospect who is currently not in the NHL, but may soon be, is New Jersey’s Brian Gionta, standing at 5-foot-7. The Devils’ depth may keep Gionta from entering the league for a couple of years, but he’s a prospect they want to hold on to. He’s lightning-quick and has great hands.
The biggest position in the NHL in terms of size is defense, where every GM is looking for the next Chris Pronger. Although players like New Jersey’s Brian Rafalski (5-foot-9) and Buffalo’s Alexei Zhitnik (5-foot-10) are trying to change the trend, and Colorado’s Raymond Bourque and Calgary’s Phil Housley (5-foot-10) have tried to change the trend, defense seems like a position lost to the big guys forever.
One prospect who is small and may be a future All-Star is Boston’s Jonathan Girard, born in Joliette. He’s quick, strong, and if the pressure to take over from Ray Bourque is not too strong, he may one day be mentioned in the same breath as Pronger and the Avalanche’s Rob Blake.
But one man who is a role model for young defencemen is the aforementioned Bourque. Many forget that the St. Laurent native is under six-feet tall because he plays like a beast, but he is one of the best defenceman to ever play the
game.
If you’re wondering, the tallest player in the NHL is a defenceman – the Islanders’ Zdeno Chara. He’s an unbelievable 6-foot-9. Although the Slovakian’s skating is nothing to wish for, his bone-crushing checks make the skinny
defenceman a force along the boards and in front of his net.
Fans and players alike have long been complaining that the talent in the NHL is
scarce and there is too much clutching and grabbing in the neutral zone. This problem could be alleviated if GM’s would give small, quick players a chance to shine and at the same time would open up more ice.
There are many tiny players out there – players drafted so low you never here about them. Maybe it’s time to give them their due and give them an opportunity, for small players are finally showing that they can play big.

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