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.

Blockbuster: Rangers send Stepan, Raanta to Coyotes for No. 7 pick, DeAngelo

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Just when you thought Stan Bowman was the busiest man at draft weekend, John Chayka upped the ante.

Just minutes after acquiring Niklas Hjalmarsson from the ‘Hawks, Chayka went out and acquired veteran Rangers center Derek Stepan — along with netminder Antti Raanta — in exchange for the No. 7 overall pick at tonight’s draft, and young d-man Anthony DeAngelo.

The trade was first broken by TSN’s Darren Dreger, later confirmed by fellow TSNer Bob McKenzie.

Phew.

In Stepan the Coyotes get a massive upgrade at the center position, which was bereft of talent for all of last season. It’s why Arizona had been tied to Stepan for most of this week. The 27-year-old has consistently been able to go beyond the 50-point plateau, with 17 goals and 55 points last season, and will certainly be a boost to Arizona’s crop of talented young forwards.

Stepan’s entering the third year of a six-year, $39 million contract that comes with an annual cap hit of $6.5 million. And, importantly, the Rangers moved him prior to his no-trade clause kicking in next season. The money freed up by trading Stepan could be used in free agency to land, say, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

As for the other part of this deal, the Coyotes could also have their starting netminder of the future in Raanta, now that Mike Smith has been shipped off to Calgary. Raanta has been one of the league’s best backups working behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York, and a new No. 2 goalie is probably on the Rangers’ revised shopping list.

This trade also gives New York a pair of first-rounders this evening — the Rangers already held the No. 21 overall selection — which is important, given GM Jeff Gorton is without second- and third-round picks. They Blueshirts also received a good puck mover in DeAngelo, a former first-round pick himself.

DeAngelo, 21, made his NHL debut last year and scored 14 points in 39 games. He’s been described as a skilled offensive defenseman, but one with a history of disciplinary issues. That continued last year in Arizona, when he was suspended three games for abuse of an official.

More to follow…

 

Chicago Fire: ‘Hawks re-acquire Saad, send Panarin to Columbus as massive shakeup continues

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Stan Bowman has made good on his promise for big changes in Chicago.

Just minutes after sending longtime defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona, Bowman got the band back together by re-acquiring former ‘Hawk Brandon Saad, who he traded to Columbus two years ago.

Per Sportsnet, the Blue Jackets will receive Artemi Panarin in exchange. Right now it’s unclear if any other pieces are involved in the deal, though earlier the ‘Hawks were reportedly looking to move up to the No. 7 pick in tonight’s draft, a pick Arizona currently holds.

UPDATE: Per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Chicago will also get goalie Anton Forsberg and Columbus’ fifth-round pick in 2018. Columbus will get Tyler Motte and Chicago’s sixth-round pick this year.

Saad left Chicago shortly after the 2015 Stanley Cup win, in a deal that landed the ‘Hawks Artem Aninisov and a handful of others. The 24-year-old has since gone on to score 31 and 24 goals in his two years with the Blue Jackets.

Immediately after Saad left, Panarin joined the ‘Hawks and immediately stepped in as a frontline contributor. He’s posted back-to-back 30-goal campaigns — capturing the Calder as the NHL’s top rookie in 2016 — and has been a dynamic offensive player, often alongside Patrick Kane.

As for the money involved, both carry identical $6 million hits. Big difference is that Saad’s locked in through 2021, whereas Panarin is eligible to be a UFA in 2019. So there’s certainly more cost certainty for Bowman with this trade.

More to follow…

After helping ‘change the culture,’ Greene’s Kings career ends with buyout

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The Los Angeles Kings made it official on Friday and bought out the remaining years of defenseman Matt Greene‘s contract.

Greene spent nine years as a member of the Kings, winning two Stanley Cups with the team in 2011-12 and 2013-14.

In a statement announcing the move, team president Luc Robitaille spoke about Greene’s impact on the organization and how he helped change the team’s culture as soon as he arrived.

“Matt has made incredible contributions to our hockey club and we are very grateful for everything he has done since joining our organization including his outstanding leadership,” said Robitaille.

“Upon his arrival to Los Angeles he played a significant role in helping change the culture of the Kings and his contributions to our two Stanley Cups in particular is immeasurable.”

Injuries have completely decimated Greene’s career in recent years, limiting him to just 154 games over the past five seasons.

The buyout will cost the Kings a salary cap hit of $833,333 for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

Trade: Chicago sends Hjalmarsson to Coyotes for Murphy, Dauphin

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One of the key pieces of Chicago’s three Stanley Cup championships is on the move.

Blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson, who’s spent his entire 10-year career with the Blackhawks, has been dealt to Arizona in exchange for fellow defenseman Connor Murphy, and prospect Laurent Dauphin.

Hjalmarsson, 30, has been a staple of the Chicago defense for quite some time. He’s durable, having only missed 11 games over the last four seasons, and has earned his reputation as a reliable top-four defensive defenseman.

As for the financials, Hjalmarsson has two years remaining on a five-year, $20.5 million deal with a $4.1M average annual cap hit. It’s worth noting he has a modified no-trade clause, in which he had to submit a 10-team trade list.

Murphy, 24, just wrapped the first of a six-year, $23.1 million deal with a $3.85M hit. That he was moved has to come as some surprise, given he signed a lengthy extension just last summer and, at the time, GM John Chayka said Murphy was “a guy we think can be part of our leadership group for a long time moving forward.”

Murphy appeared in 77 games for the Coyotes last year, scoring 17 points. It’s probably worth noting his TOI actually decreased after signing his extension, from 20:30 in ’15-16 to just 19:11 last year.

Dauphin, 22, was the 39th overall pick in 2013. He split last year between Arizona and AHL Tucson, and was a good scorer at the minor league level (28 points in 38 games).