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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.

There’s something off about the St. Louis Blues

Ottawa Senators' Mike Hoffman, second from left, celebrates after the Senators scored a goal against St. Louis Blues goalie Carter Hutton during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in St. Louis. The Senators won 6-4. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
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The St. Louis Blues had another hiccup last night, falling 6-4 at home to Ottawa. They only mustered 23 shots on Sens goalie Mike Condon — and that’s been a theme in their past seven games. In fact, the Blues haven’t registered more than 26 shots since beating Chicago in the Winter Classic.

It was a particularly disappointing effort against the Senators. St. Louis had just returned from a California road trip, which started with a bad loss in Los Angeles but finished with encouraging wins in San Jose and Anaheim.

“We just didn’t manage the puck very well on the boards,” head coach Ken Hitchcock said, per the Post-Dispatch. “We weren’t as determined and as effort-based on the boards as were the two games previous.”

The Blues’ record now sits at a modest 23-17-5. For a team that only lost 24 times in regulation last season, it’s been a fairly significant fall-off. It’s also fair to say the departures of David Backes, Troy Brouwer, and Brian Elliott have been felt.

Slightly more than halfway through the schedule, St. Louis is by no means guaranteed a playoff spot. Nashville, with a game in hand, is lurking just three points back for third place in the Central. And if the Blues are caught by the Preds, they’ll have to fend off Los Angeles, Calgary, Vancouver, and perhaps Dallas or Winnipeg for one of the two wild-card spots.

It would be easy to just blame the goaltending. But while it’s true that neither Jake Allen nor Carter Hutton have been very good, the Blues have not been the dominant possession team they’ve shown they can be. In their last 20 games, their score-adjusted Corsi ranks 20th in the league. Now compare that to their last 20 games of last season, when they ranked third.

“I’d like to see us take control of the game a little bit more,” said forward Alex Steen, who’s been with the Blues long enough to know what a good performance looks and feels like.

Looking ahead, the Blues get a big test Thursday at home to Washington, then hit the road for three games in Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.

A better performance against the Caps would go a long way. But only if it’s followed up with another and another.

Bottom line: it’s time for the Blues to get back to playing the way they can. If they still can.

So much fallout from that wild Rangers-Stars game

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17:  Stephen Johns #28 of the Dallas Stars checks Pavel Buchnevich #89 of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on January 17, 2017 in New York City. The Stars defeated the Rangers 7-6.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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For two teams that don’t have much history or play each other often, Dallas and New York had quite the monumental affair on Monday.

To recap:

• The two teams combined for 13 goals, and the Stars scored seven times in the first 40 minutes. The Rangers were booed while leaving the ice in the second period.

Cody Eakin, who last month served a four-game suspension for a huge hit on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, was forced to answer for his antics by fighting Chris Kreider early in the second period. Today, Kreider was fined for hitting Eakin in the head with his own helmet.

• Speaking of Lundqvist, he was torched for seven goals on 27 shots,. He’s now allowed 12 goals on 49 shots in his last four periods played… and 20 goals on 113 shots in his last four games. He looks and sounds rattled, to put it mildly.

“I feel like it’s embarrassing and frustrating and disappointing at the same time,” Lundqvist said, per NHL.com. “I need to find another level. It’s not good enough.”

• Rangers forward Jesper Fast, who two games ago was rocked by Montreal’s Andrew Shaw, only played 6:31 last night and has now been ruled out for the next 7-10 days with an upper-body injury.

• Dallas d-man Johnny Oduya only played 8:31 and re-aggravated a lower-body injury that sidelined him earlier this season. The Stars have already ruled him out for Thursday’s game in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — the Stars and Rangers won’t meet again this season.

Well, unless it’s in the Stanley Cup Final.

Kreider fined for hitting Eakin with helmet during fight

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Rangers forward Chris Kreider has been fined $5,000 for hitting Dallas’ Cody Eakin with his own helmet during a fight on Tuesday night, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has announced.

The incident came nearly one month after Eakin was suspended four games for hitting Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in a mid-December tilt in Dallas.

There was no retribution at the time — Eakin was kicked out of the game — but many figured the Stars forward would have to atone for his earlier indiscretion… and that’s exactly what happened at the 1:52 mark of the second period.

Kreider didn’t face any additional in-game punishment for his fight, aside from the standard five-minute major penalty. It’s possible the officials didn’t see the helmet swing, or perhaps it was so brief the zebras opted against calling it.

Whatever the case, it’s probably worth noting that Darcy Tucker was ejected from a game in 2005 for a similar act — hitting Cam Janssen in the head with his own helmet during a scrap — and, like Kreider, was fined after the fact, but not suspended.

 

 

Vanek likes Detroit, but knows he could be traded

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 13:  Thomas Vanek #62 of the Detroit Red Wings gets ready for a face-off against Tampa Bay Lightning during a game at the Amalie Arena on October 13, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Thomas Vanek knows the deal. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent on a team that’s unlikely to make the playoffs. He has a respectable 12 goals and 18 assists in 33 games, and his cap hit is just $2.6 million.

Obviously, there’s going to be trade speculation as the March 1 deadline approaches.

“I like it here,” Vanek said of playing in Detroit, per NHL.com. “I enjoy my time here. I like the guys. My family likes it here. So obviously I’m hoping to put a good streak here together to get ourselves back in the picture so I can be here. But obviously I understand the business side of it. … If I’m moving, I’m getting pretty good at that too.”

The Red Wings are Vanek’s fifth NHL team. He’s been traded twice in his career, both times in 2013-14 when he went from the Sabres to the Islanders and then to the Canadiens.

What the Wings could get for Vanek remains to be seen. The 32-year-old has 20 goals in 63 career playoff games; however, he’s also faced intense criticism during a handful of his postseason performances.

Six points back of third place in the Atlantic, Detroit has not yet given up on extending its lengthy playoff streak. The Wings are coming off two big wins over Pittsburgh and Montreal. They host Boston tonight (on NBCSN).