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.

‘Young Mario’ Matthews continues to reinvent ways to score

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Auston Matthews is drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux and getting noticed by Bryce Harper amid a hot start to his second NHL season.

Last season’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Matthews went into training camp seeking to be more assertive on the ice. That has translated to five goals and three assists in his first six games and the kind of improved all-around play that makes the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs a superstar already at age 20.

”He’s got a skillset that ranges from just about everything,” Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said Tuesday. ”The ceiling’s the limit for Matts, and he knows he can be a great player and he already is. It’s crazy to think he’s (still) at such a young age.”

Even though Matthews remains in the shadow of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby on hockey’s pantheon of top players, he already has filled up the highlight reel thanks to some tweaks and adjustments. The Scottsdale, Arizona, native was the first rookie to score 40 goals since Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06 and is conscious of the pressure to keep up that pace.

”You’re always reinventing yourself,” Matthews said. ”The league’s always adjusting and you’ve got to adjust right back to it.”

The league hasn’t adjusted yet. Matthews showed that by scoring goals so many different ways this season.

Matthews scored an overtime winner against Chicago by taking the puck off a carom off the back of Patrick Kane‘s right skate and going down the ice. Against Montreal, he scored one goal by flipping the puck past a Canadiens defender and knocking it down at full speed before firing through a screen, and then another on the rush by shooting short side on 2015 Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Carey Price.

”For me, the first (Montreal goal) was probably a little more impressive just how he handled the pass and you see how much he changed the angle,” Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”He’s really good at changing the angle, getting it off quick, things like that. He’s got a lot of different shots that he’ll try within his toolbox. It makes him pretty unpredictable when he’s going to shoot it.”

Matthews has only played 88 regular-season and six playoff games and yet has admirers far and wide.

Harper wore a brand new blue No. 34 Matthews jersey out of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse after their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubslast week. Matthews said he doesn’t know Harper, who’s from Las Vegas, but called the honor ”awesome.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been watching Matthews’ growth and likened him – already – to a Hockey Hall of Famer and one of the best players in history.

”Auston Matthews, I’ve been saying it: He’s a young Mario Lemieux,” Trotz said. ”He’s (big), he can skate, he’s ultra-skilled, he’s very, very competitive, he makes plays.”

Matthews’ rookie success earned him another believer: himself. He said last month he was aiming to trust his skills more and want the puck more. With the season underway he said ”you just want to be the best player you can be,” and that’s evident with how much the line of Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander have had the puck.

”We’ve been able to create offense, which is important, and that leads to chances,” Nylander said. ”That’s always a positive.”

At even strength, Matthews has been on the ice for 80 Leafs shots and 64 by opponents, evidence of just how much his evolving defensive game benefits the Maple Leafs.

”When you play well defensively, you feel like you get the puck more,” Matthews said. ”We’re offensive guys. We want to create offense so when you have the puck it feels good and you feel like you can create chances.”

Those chances are coming, and Matthews is cashing in on them. No wonder he has earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust.

”He’s a good player trying to get better each and every day,” Babcock said. ”What I like about him is how hard he works and how competitive he is and how much he wants to get better. The best players in the league, the superstars, they love hockey more than everyone else, so they can work at it harder and longer than the next guy.”

Matthews downplays his own improvements but sounds like a perfect Babcock-type player when discussing his early-season success.

”I feel good,” Matthews said. ”Just a couple weeks in, so you want to find that consistency individually, with your linemates, with everybody. You just want to continue to get better every day.”

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NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Blackhawks vs. Blues; Canadiens vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Wednesday night. In the early game, the St. Louis Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8:00 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

It’s still early, but the Blackhawks and Blues are currently first and second in the Central Division standings, so this should be a pretty entertaining matchup.

Despite making plenty of big changes this off-season, the ‘Hawks have found a way to take care of business so far. No Western Conference team has scored more goals (25) than Chicago, and they owe a lot of that to Brandon Saad.

Saad was re-acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade involving Artemi Panarin. The move may not have been overly popular at the time, but Saad is off to an incredible start (six goals and two assists in six games). Add Patrick Kane (eight points in six games), Ryan Hartman (eight points in six games), Jonathan Toews (six points in six games) and Richard Panik (six points in six games), and you quickly understand why the ‘Hawks have been so good.

Also, don’t forget about Corey Crawford, who’s been lights out this season. He’s won four of five starts and he owns a 1.39 goals-against-average and a .960 save percentage. Referring to him as good is a heck of an understatement.

The Blues might not be as flashy as the ‘Hawks, but they’ve been impressive nonetheless. St. Louis has had to overcome injuries to key figures like Alex Steen, Jay Bouwmeester and Robby Fabbri early on this season.

They have cooled down a little though, as they’re coming off back-to-back losses to in Florida and Tampa Bay. In their defense, those were the final two games of a four-game road trip and it was a stretch of five road games (six games overall) is 11 days.

In the late game, the Los Angeles Kings host the Montreal Canadiens at 10:30 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to the Canadiens, who have now lost five games in a row. Montreal is coming off a 5-2 loss to San Jose last night.

There are some major concerns with the team right now. First, their top players haven’t been performing up to standard. Max Pacioretty, who has been an automatic 30-goal scorer over the last four seasons, hasn’t looked dangerous at all this season.

Alex Galchenyuk scored his first goal of the season last Saturday, but he hasn’t been overly impressive either. He’s been so inconsistent that head coach Claude Julien has decided to demote him to the fourth line.

And then there’s Carey Price, who has looked like a shell of himself in the early going. By now, we know that without Price, this team doesn’t have a chance of making a dent. He has a 1-4-1 record with a 3.56 goals-against-average and a .885 save percentage.

If those three players don’t get their game sorted out quickly, the Canadiens could be in for a very long season.

Things couldn’t be going much better for the Kings right now. They’re off to a 4-0-1 start, and players that struggled to produce last year have been really good this year.

Captain Anze Kopitar has eight points in five games, which is impressive. And where has this Dustin Brown been? Brown four goals and three assists in five games. Last season, he had 14 goals and 36 points. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but the Kings will continue to ride these guys for as long as they can.

Overall, it’s been a dream start for the Kings. Going from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens appears to be paying off in a big way.

“I think it’s a lot of what we hoped it would be,” Stevens said of the season so far, per LAKingsInsider.com. “We wanted to be a really solid, defensively sound team, but we wanted to have more of an attack mentality so we can do more with the puck. We’ve created some really good quality opportunities on the rush, and I think we’re starting to implement some of the things in terms of having more of an attacking mindset when we’re in the offensive zone. I think we’ve got lots of work to do with that. We want to be an aggressive team, but we want to have more of an attack mindset on our team.”

PHT Morning Skate: Is the Golden Knights’ success sustainable?

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–The Arizona Coyotes have been bad for a while now and things don’t appear to be getting better anytime soon. The ‘Yotes are off to a sluggish start. They remain the only team in the league to not have recorded a win in 2017-18. “It hasn’t gone as planned,” GM John Chayka said Monday. “We want to win. We haven’t got a win yet, so that’s unacceptable.” One of the biggest problems is that they’re giving up over four goals per game. (arizonasports.com)

–No one expects an expansion team to be loaded with depth, but the Vegas Golden Knights have proven to be pretty deep this year. For now, it’s working for them, but forcing players that are playing well to sit as healthy scratches could become a problem down the road. (sinbin.vegas)

–Speaking of the Golden Knights, Andrew Berkshire looks at whether or not they’re as good as they’ve been playing early on this season. Although they’re likely playing above their heads, they’ll probably be better than many people expected. (Sporting News)

PHT’s James O’Brien wrote a great piece about the Edmonton Oilers’ struggles so far this season, but here’s a different perspective from oilersnation.com. Cam Talbot‘s slow start isn’t overly concerning. The lack of secondary scoring is a real problem though. (oilersnation.com)

–The Ottawa Senators are off to a relatively good start, but the possession stats have left a lot to be desired. How are they doing it? Will they be able to keep it up? The return of Erik Karlsson has to count for something. (Sportsnet)

–The pace of the NHL game has gotten extremely fast, so it’s become more challenging for referees to keep up. Like players, officials have their own training camp. What do they do there?  “We work on repetitive movements on the ice. We also let them play hockey and we officiate the hockey. We have enough guys with minor-league guys there-there’s about 80 guys at camp-that we can make six teams and the quality of hockey was actually pretty good this year,” said the NHL’s vice-president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom. (fanragsports.com)

–Calgary’s search for a new arena remains complicated for the Flames. With the re-election of Naheed Nenshi, who isn’t a fan of the idea that public money needs to be spent on a new rink, things could get ugly. (The Hockey News)

–According to blueseatblogs, part of the reason why the Rangers are so bad this year is because head coach Alain Vigneault is having issues with deployment. Part of the problem, is that Vingeault hasn’t identified who his shutdown pairing is yet. (blueseatblogs.com)

–Over the summer, Derek Stepan got traded for the first time in his career. The adjustment has been difficult. After all, New York and Arizona offer very different lifestyles. “As we go each day, the more comfortable I get. And the more comfortable I get, the more I fit in,” Stepan said. “I feel like I’m getting closer and closer. I felt like the new kid at school.” (ESPN.com)

–NBCSN will be broadcasting tonight’s Rivalry Night game between the Blackhawks and Blues, and NHL.com gives you five reasons to watch this contest. A matchup between Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko can’t be dull! (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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The Buzzer: Malkin paces Penguins, Vegas keeps on winning

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Player of the night: Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin helped get things started for the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, and then he finished the game off with the overtime winner to send the New York Rangers to a fourth consecutive loss.

Malkin scored once, added three assists and even dropped the gloves in a 5-4 overtime victory, as the Penguins came back with a late — and crafty — third period goal from Sidney Crosby.

Talk about the Penguins being opportunistic on the winner. Off a defensive zone faceoff win for the Rangers, Ryan McDonagh made a terrible giveaway right beside his own net, giving the puck to Phil Kessel, who slipped it over to Malkin for the quick one-timer.

Highlight of the night:

There were a few candidates for this tonight. Phil Kessel once again showed off that tremendous wrist shot. Thomas Vanek decided to blast a slap shot on a breakaway, going post and in against the Senators. Nikita Kucherov had a perfect shot against Cory Schneider after previously setting up teammate Vladislav Namestnikov for a pretty goal versus the Devils. Yes, there were a few options.

But, we’ll go back to Winnipeg for this one. Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson not only protects the puck from Jacob Trouba on the breakaway, but then dekes out Steve Mason with the move to the forehand.

Factoid of the night:

The Vegas Golden Knights won again, giving them a 5-1 record to begin their inaugural season. That puts them in elite company.

Scores:

New Jersey 5, Tampa Bay 4 (SO)

San Jose 5, Montreal 2

Pittsburgh 5, New York 4 (OT)

Philadelphia 5, Florida 1

Toronto 2, Washington 0

Vancouver 3, Ottawa 0

Nashville 4, Colorado 1

Columbus 5, Winnipeg 2

Dallas 3, Arizona 1

Vegas 5, Buffalo 4 (OT)

Carolina 5, Edmonton 3

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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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