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.

NHL on NBCSN: Banged-up Lightning continue push for playoff spot against ‘Hawks

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

Despite the crazy amount of injuries that the Lightning have suffered (Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Jason Garrison are all out), they find themselves within striking distance of a post-season berth.

Coming into tonight’s tilt against the ‘Hawks, the Bolts are three points behind Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East. The Lightning have a game in hand on the Bruins, but Boston has five more regulation/overtime wins.

After dropping a 5-3 decision to Arizona on home ice last Tuesday, they rebounded by beating the B’s and Wings on the road on Thursday and Friday.

One of the big reasons why the Lightning have been able to stay in the race, is because of  the way Nikita Kucherov has played this season.

On Friday, with the Bolts trailing the Wings 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov helped set up Ondrej Palat‘s game-tying goal before adding the OT winner later on.

The 23-year-old is up to 38 goals and 40 assists in 67 games. He’s accumulated 29 of those points in his last 16 games and he’s put together four multi-point efforts in a row.

If the Bolts make it to the playoffs, is Kucherov the MVP?

Don’t expect the Blackhawks to be in a particularly good mood coming into this game. Not only did they drop Saturday night’s game in Florida, but they were absolutely annihilated, 7-0.

“There’s no reason we should be entirely satisfied at this point,” captain Jonathan Toews said after the loss, per the Chicago Tribune. “There’s always room to grow.

“We can’t expect it’s going to be easy hockey (the) last seven games. If we continue to play like that and think we’re going to turn it on come playoff time, we’ve got another thing coming.”

The Blackhawks had a bit of a rough week, as they lost 5-4 in OT to the Canucks on Tuesday before narrowly beating the Stars 3-2 in a shootout on Thursday. But overall, they’ve been on a pretty good run. In their last eight contests, they’ve gone 6-1-1, which is far from poor.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for the Bruins to move on from Tuukka Rask?

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Tuukka Rask has shown that he can be one of the top goalies in the NHL, but CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty thinks that his inability to deliver in big games is becoming a serious problem. Haggerty even suggests that the Bruins should consider shipping him out of town this summer. It’s an interesting thought. (CSN New England)

–Nolan Patrick is expected to go first overall in next June’s entry draft, but his draft year has been anything but ordinary. He missed the first 34 games of the season with an undisclosed injury, which must be pretty frustrating. But Patrick has gone through a similar situation before. When he was a young teenager, Patrick broke his collarbone twice. He was able to shake the injuries off and turn himself into a top prospect. (Sportsnet)

–Take a look at the top seven plays of the week in and around the NHL. If you’re fed up of seeing Sidney Crosby score ridiculous goals, do not watch this video. (NBC Sports)

–The Flyers got six goals from six different players in their win over the Penguins last night. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page. Philly is now six points back of Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

–Sabres forward Brian Gionta will be playing in his 1000th NHL game tonight. As you’d imagine, the 5-foot-7 forward didn’t have an easy path to the big show, but he was still able to carve out a great career for himself. “To be out there and part of his 1,000th game, it’s a proud moment for me,” teammate Josh Gorges said. “I know it’s a proud moment for him. We’ve talked about it before, and it’s an amazing accomplishment. … We’re all looking forward to it.” (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

–Did you really think that changing the goalies’ pants was going to result in more goals scored? Well, let’s just say it hasn’t worked out that way. Before the change, teams were scoring 2.73 goals-per-game. Since the change, that number is slightly down at 2.70. (The Score)

–Jets super fan Kiera Neal was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one, but Neal, now 10, is doing well and is cancer free. Her wish was to meet the Winnipeg Jets and her favorite player Dustin Byfuglien, and the people at Hometown Hockey made it happen:

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers: