Should size matter in the NHL anymore?

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Around hockey circles, there’s a saying: “Small players need to prove that they can play, big players need to prove that they can’t.” Look around the NHL and the first round of any draft and you’ll find that’s as true today as it’s ever been. A huge, semi-productive prospect is given the benefit of the doubt, while a small superstar will have more question marks around his name than Matthew Lasko. But as general managers and scouts slowly get acclimated to the anti-obstruction rule changes in the post-lockout era, those talented players who used to be passed over are starting to get their shot.

Guys like Nathan Gerbe, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez are proving that players of any size can thrive in the NHL if they’re good enough. Dave Joseph from ESPN Radio in Los Angeles saw the 5’8” Martin St. Louis at the University of Vermont and says he was clearly the best player on the ice—yet he went undrafted. The prospect who had been dominant at every level had to catch on as a free agent with the Calgary Flames. Take the exact same player on the exact same team and put him in a 6’3” body—he’s undoubtedly a Top 5 pick. In 2004-05 (pre-lockout), he proved the scouts wrong when he earned the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, Lester B Pearson Trophy, and Stanley Cup en route to one of the best individual seasons in recent memory.

Maybe it’s because of St. Louis’ success. Maybe it’s because of the rule changes. Either way, NHL teams are slowly starting to give all talented players an opportunity. No team better exemplifies that than the Los Angeles Kings with their recent draft picks.

Linden Vey was a smaller prospect and even went undrafted the first time around, yet last season he put up 116 points in the Western Hockey League. For a point of reference, it was the best single season in the WHL in 11 seasons. The Kings drafted him in the 4th round with the 96th pick in the draft his second time around. He understands that his size and the scouts perception isn’t something he can worry about if he wants to be successful. Vey explains his outlook:

“All you can do is control what you do on the ice and how you prepare. That’s what I try to focus on. All of those other things, those aren’t up to you. You just have to make sure to stay focused—my dream is to play in the NHL one day and I just have to make sure to keep working one day at a time.”

Kings head coach Terry Murray has been around the block a few times and sees the shifting landscape as well.

“The game has changed. The smaller player today… we’re looking back before I played as a player. But you go back into those teams you look at on tape in the 1950’s. You have a lot of smaller guys who are very skilled, very fast. The game now with the rule changes, the style that we’re playing, and the way we’re looking at things as coaches, there’s lots of room for the smaller players that have great skill and speed.”

There’s more to it than just a shifting landscape though. St. Louis thrived even before the rule changes, so there was proof that smaller players could perform given the chance. Some of the traits that have helped St. Louis become so successful are his quickness and his ability to visualize the game. Another Kings prospect, Jordan Weal, knows he may not have the body to match up with other players, so like St. Louis, he takes a different tact to neutralize his size disadvantage.

“[I use] quickness, for sure,” Weal explained. “Moving my feet in the offensive zone because it’s a lot harder to hit a moving target than someone who is standing still. If I keep my feet moving and think the game a couple of steps ahead of the other guy, then I can stay on top of that and create chances.”

Sounds like good advice for any player in the NHL—regardless of size. But just as important as size and on-ice intelligence; it’s heart, grit, and determination that will separate the players who can play in the NHL and those who cannot. The best of the Kings diminutive bunch of offensive prospects may be Calgary Hitman alum Brandon Kozun. Kozun tore up the Western Hockey League by putting up the first back-to-back 100-point seasons the WHL had seen since 2001. But even with all of his success, he’s still had to overcome repeated comments about his size.

“I’ve heard everything,” Kozun revealed. “It doesn’t affect me. I’ve heard every small joke. Or you can’t play here, you can’t play there. I just don’t even listen to it anymore.”

Despite having a reputation to favor bigger players, Murray likes the potential in Kozun—but not for the obvious reasons you may think. “[Brandon Kozun’s] got some real determination,” Murray beamed. “[He has] some real heart to play the game hard, you’re going to play. You’re going to play in high traffic areas and you’re going to generate a lot of offense because of his ability to create that separation. Kozun’s that man. He’s put up a lot of numbers on his resume over his junior career.”

To recap: A player needs to be quick, gritty, and smart to make the NHL? Who knew? It sounds so simple, but for years scouts and NHL organizations have looked the other way when it came to productive players under 6’.

Murray summed up the challenges for all prospects. These aren’t challenges that only small prospects, marginal prospects, or late round picks face—these are challenges that all draft picks face.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning at Devils

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The Tampa Bay Lightning visit the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, in a match-up of the early season Atlantic and Metropolitan division leaders.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone to see the Lightning, with Steven Stamkos in their lineup, among the higher scoring teams so far. The Devils, on the other hand, have enjoyed a great start to their season and are currently third in the league with 4.20 goals-for per game. You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (7:30 p.m. PT) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning beat Penguins

‘Fun to watch’ Devils rookie Jesper Bratt off to hot start

Hischier ‘played his way’ into top-six role with Devils

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Test your might: Buckle up for fascinating night in NHL

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With 11 games on the schedule and a doubleheader on NBCSN, Tuesday provides a veritable buffet for hockey fans.

That volume opens up opportunities, such as getting closer to seeing where the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers really are at, and which one of the struggling San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens can get their second win of the season (note: Montreal at San Jose closes off that NBCSN doubleheader).

It says a lot that a Penguins – Rangers game is intriguing, but not necessarily headline-grabbing.

Oh yeah, and we also get to see how the stubborn Ottawa Senators look now that Erik Karlsson is returning to lineup. There’s really something for everyone tonight.

For the sake of brevity, let’s limit this to four games that should be especially fascinating on Tuesday.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals

Remember that fantastic first-round series? The one that ended up being uncomfortably close for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps?

Tuesday could be another thriller, as Alex Ovechkin‘s off to a heck of a start for the up-and-down Capitals (3-2-1), who host the dumb, fun Maple Leafs (4-1-0). It says a lot that, despite only playing five games, Toronto leads the NHL with 26 goals scored. Ovechkin vs. Auston Matthews is rarely not a fun time, in general.

This game may answer some questions, including: “How long can Mike Babcock really push Mitch Marner down the lineup?”

Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils

These aren’t your older brother’s boring Devils, but this is increasingly looking like your older brother’s very good Lightning.

Anyway, Tampa Bay (5-1-0) already beat a surprisingly hot Red Wings team on Monday, and now they look to cool off another dark horse in the Devils (4-1-0).

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are doing their usual suspects act for the Lightning, while the Devils are off to the sort of start that has made them one of the most entertaining teams of this early season. It’s not just obvious guys like Taylor Hall or even 2017 top pick Nico Hischier, either, as Will Butcher already has eight assists and Jesper Bratt is currently second on NJ in scoring.

Tampa Bay is closing off a back-to-back, which might make it tougher for them to keep up with this young team in Newark.

This potential barnburner begins NBCSN’s doubleheader at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

MORE: Full preview for Lightning – Devils, Canadiens – Sharks

Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators

Nashville isn’t too impressive just yet with a 2-2-1 record, but do note that they’re 2-0-1 in their last three games. They’re also getting a chance to eye Matt Duchene, whose feelings might not be totally soothed even though the Avs are off to a 4-2-0 start.

This one stands as an interesting test for the upstart Avalanche, but the Duchene angle might be most interesting. Is he facing his future team here? Could the two squads pull a “Moneyball” and have him change locker rooms tonight? (OK, that’s probably going too far.)

Columbus Blue Jackets at Winnipeg Jets

John Tortorella’s loaded, “safe equals death” group featuring the likes of Zach Werenski versus the ridiculously loaded Jets (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, so much more)? Yes, please.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Debuts, Returns: Penguins may get Cole back, Rinaldo ends suspension

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There are quite a few interesting lineup notes heading into a busy, fascinating Tuesday night of games. Let’s cover some of them in lightning round fashion.

(This collection isn’t necessarily comprehensive. If you need even more updates, Rotoworld’s NHL news section is your friend.)

  • Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan announced that defenseman Ian Cole is healthy enough to play and a game-time decision. In related news, Cole has relatives who are dentists, which might be the funniest profession for family members of hockey players.

  • Keep your heads up, Dallas Stars. Zac Rinaldo’s five-game suspension has ended, so he’ll make his Arizona Coyotes debut on Tuesday.

Rinaldo, 27, hasn’t made an NHL appearance since the 2015-16 season with the Boston Bruins. He spent last season with the Providence Bruins.

(See the bottom of this post for Rinaldo’s most recent suspension … in the NHL, at least.)

  • Rinaldo isn’t the only debut to watch in Arizona. With Antti Raanta injured and Louis Domingue unable to give the Coyotes their first win of the season, the team turns to Adin Hill for his first-ever NHL start.

Who is Adin Hill, you might ask?

Well, he’s a 21-year-old goalie with some pedigree, as the Coyotes selected him in the third round (76th overall) in 2015. Hill spent most of last season in the AHL, going 16-14-0 with a .906 save percentage for the aptly named Tucson Roadrunners. As you can see from this Sportsnet profile, Hill sports the sort of size NHL teams look for these days.

Left Wing Lock places Tippett on a third line with Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann. Is that enough of an opportunity to get a look at him?

“I have the upside of Phil Kessel—the speed, the shot, the way he can make plays. I also have some things I need to work on to be a 200-foot player,” Tippett said before Panthers training camp, via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.

Panthers fans should already bat around nickname ideas. Perhaps “Big Red” would work for soda pop fans? Should he steal “Red Rocket” from Bengals QB Andy Dalton?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

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It’s already bad news that the New York Rangers (1-5-0) and San Jose Sharks (1-3-0) enter Tuesday’s games with a single win apiece.

There’s a simple reason why those slow starts should sting a little extra, though: these teams are squandering home-heavy stretches, or at risk of doing so.

More on the Rangers’ slow start here

Rangers need to wake up at MSG

There are some reasons to believe in both the Sharks and Rangers, with their long track records of recent regular-season success headlining such arguments. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have played two road contests versus four at home, so the situation isn’t too extreme. Yet.

Things could get ugly in a hurry, starting with a real challenge in hosting the Pittsburgh Penguin at Madison Square Garden tonight:

Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

By the end of October, the Rangers will have played 10 of 41 home contests. At best, a creaky start could cost them seeding. At worst, they may look back at this when pondering how they missed the postseason.

(It doesn’t help their cause that they’re in the brutal Metropolitan Division, either.)

Beyond the established track record, the Rangers can also point to recent history as an act that travels well. In 2016-17, the Rangers boasted a better record on the road (27-12-2) than at home (21-16-4). While they were better at home in 2015-16, they were also 19-17-5 in away games then, too.

So, it’s not all bad for Alain Vigneault & Co., but they could make life much easier for themselves (and maybe see openings to rest Henrik Lundqvist more often) if they take advantage of these opportunities.

Sharks face erratic runs

San Jose ends a five-game homestand against the mercurial Montreal Canadiens tonight. A 2-3-0 mark in such a run wouldn’t be the end of the world, while going 1-3-1 or 1-4-0 would hurt.

While the Rangers look to October as a time where they need to create some breathing room, the Sharks need to take better advantage of future homestands, as their schedule seems to rotate road trips and runs of home games.

This veteran group readies for a five-game road trip, then they play eight of nine at home from Oct. 30 – Nov. 20.

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Significant members of both the Sharks and Rangers have “been there before.” Players such as Joe Thornton, Lundqvist, and Rick Nash might view October as insignificant; they’ve each likely been on teams that shook off bad starts, even if it meant squandering bountiful opportunities at home.

You can understand a certain level of complacency, but you never know when you’ll no longer have the spring in your step to make it up that hill once again.

The next month or two isn’t “make-or-break” for the Rangers or Sharks, at least in a literal sense. Then again, wins and standings points weigh the same during an 82-game season, so why not stock up while the schedule bends in your favor?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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