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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Hats off (again) to Jaden Schwartz

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  • Jaden Schwartz records his second hat trick of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko keeps producing.
  • Jordan Binnington records his first career postseason shutout to help bring the St. Louis Blues one step closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 0 (Blues lead series 3-2)

This game was every bit as lopsided as the 5-0 final score would have you believe. The St. Louis Blues were simply the better team in every single phase of the game and put together what might have been their best performance of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point. They now return home on Tuesday night with a chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970 and have to be confident given how well they have played over the past two games. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both had multi-point games in the win (Schwartz recorded his second hat trick of the postseason), while Oskar Sundqvist started things off early in the first period to continue his strong playoff run. The Sharks were not only on the wrong end of the score, but they also now have some major injury questions heading into Game 6, especially regarding top defender Erik Karlsson who played just 10 minutes on Sunday as he continues to deal with his lingering injury. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded his first shutout of the playoffs in net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. His incredible postseason continues. After a disappointing regular season performance that saw him score just 11 goals in 69 games, one of the worst offensive outputs of his career, Schwartz has been a constant force in these playoffs and recorded his second hat trick on Sunday. He is now up to 12 goals for the playoffs, exceeding his regular season total, and is now just one goal away from tying Brett Hull’s franchise record for a single postseason.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a fairly quiet (by his standards, anyway) start to the playoffs the Blues needed their best player to shine in the Western Conference Final. He has. He extended his current point streak to five games on Sunday with a goal and two assists. He now has two goals and five assists in the series, and is up to seven goals and 12 total points in the playoffs. He has always been a big-time performer for the Blues in the playoffs, and he is shining just when they need him most.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. He did not need to be great on Sunday, especially over the second and third periods when the Blues completely took over the game and dominated, but a shutout in a Western Conference Final game is still a big deal. It his first career shutout in the playoffs.

Highlights of the Day

Sundqvist got things started for the Blues when he capitalized on a bad turnover by Karlsson. It is his fourth goal of the playoffs.

This was just a terrible play by Sharks goalie Martin Jones and it resulted in an easy goal for Schwartz, his first of the game.

Tarasenko’s penalty shot goal in the second period was the first playoff penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history, and it came on a shot that looked to be pretty unstoppable.

Factoids

  • Schwartz became just the third player in Blues franchise history to score at least 10 goals in a single playoff run and the first since Brett Hull during the 1991 playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • The St. Louis Blues have won more games this postseason than in any other postseason in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Vladimir Tarasenko scored the first postseason penalty shot goal in St. Louis Blues history in the second period of Sunday’s game. It was only the second postseason penalty shot the team has ever had. [NHL PR]
  • The Blues have won seven of their first nine road games this postseason, something only 17 other teams have accomplished. [NHL PR]
  • Schwartz is the first player in Blues history to have two hat tricks in a single postseason and the first player for any team since Johan Franzen did it for the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. [NHL PR]

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks blown out by Blues and now have major injury concerns

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Whatever luck the San Jose Sharks had on their side earlier this postseason completely disappeared on Sunday in what was a complete nightmare of a performance against the St. Louis Blues.

Not only did they get thoroughly dominated in a 5-0 loss, but they had a terrible day from an injury standpoint and will be going into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN) facing elimination with a roster that will almost certainly be far less than 100 percent.

The Sharks’ injury list after Sunday’s game is a significant one and includes some of their top players.

Among them…

  • Defender Erik Karlsson, who entered the game obviously playing through a groin injury, was limited to just 10:32 of ice-time and played just three minutes after the first period, including zero in the third period.
  • Tomas Hertl, one of the team’s best forwards and leading scorers this postseason, exited the game after the second period. He was on the receiving end of a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period that was uncalled.
  • Joe Pavelski also left the game in the third period following a high hit from Blues defender Alex Pietrangelo along the boards. Keep in mind that he missed the first six games of their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche with a head injury.
  • As if all of that was not enough, Joonas Donskoi also exited the game in the third period after he was hit in the mouth by a puck and was bleeding.

Even if all (or some) of those players are available for Tuesday’s game it is entirely possible they will not be 100 percent. That is especially true for Karlsson who was already looking to be limited in what he was capable of doing entering Sunday’s game. When he did play in Game 5 he looked tentative, slow, and was guilty of a brutal turnover that resulted in the Blues’ first goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That turnover was just the start of what would be a complete meltdown by the Sharks that saw them record 36 penalty minutes (including two misconducts) and give the Blues two 5-on-3 power plays. Add that to the return of the bad version of Martin Jones in net and you had a perfect recipe for a blowout loss on the ice.

As for the Blues, this was just an all-around impressive performance.

The win improved them to 7-2 on the road this postseason and is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it has them in a position where they are now just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1970 season. It was also their 11th win of the playoffs, setting a new franchise record for most wins in a single postseason.

Jaden Schwartz, who scored just 11 goals in 69 games during the regular season, recorded his second hat trick of the playoffs to give him a team-leading 12 postseason goals, while Vladimir Tarasenko extended his current point streak to five games by scoring on a penalty shot in the second period (the first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history).

The Sharks had a couple of near-misses by ringing a pairing of shots off the goal post next to Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, including one from Evander Kane just 10 seconds into the game, but recorded just 10 shots on goal over the second and third periods, which was a pretty accurate reflection of the shutdown performance by the Blues defensively.

Game 6 of Blues-Sharks is 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night in St. Louis.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tarasenko scores first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues history

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The St. Louis Blues put on an absolute clinic in the second period on Sunday afternoon, scoring a pair of goals and outshooting the San Jose Sharks by a 20-6 margin.

The second goal came from star winger Vladimir Tarasenko when he scored on a penalty shot by ripping a laser of a shot behind Sharks goalie Martin Jones, making him look relatively helpless in the process.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

It is a noteworthy goal not only because it gave the Blues a 3-0 lead, but also because it is the first time in Blues franchise history that they have scored a goal on a penalty shot in a playoff game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is also only the second time the Blues have had a penalty shot in a playoff game, as Tarasenko’s attempt joined Jimmy Roberts during the 1968 playoffs (Roberts did not score).

Tarasenko’s goal was his seventh of the playoffs and his second of the Western Conference Final. He has now recorded at least one point in every game against the Sharks. He was awarded the penalty shot when he was tripped by Sharks defender Brent Burns on a breakaway.

His goal came after Jaden Schwartz scored his 10th goal of the playoffs earlier in the period, capitalizing on a brutal play by Jones that saw him turn the puck over in front of the net to a wide open Schwartz.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.