Calgary FlamesNHLScience/Statistics

Changing of the guard: Small skill reigning tall in the new NHL

The NHL has a longstanding reputation of being a tough league. Players were always lauded for their size, grit and toughness. A set of grinders was seen as an essential part of every team’s lineup, despite their ability to actually play the game of hockey. If they generated a fight, that was a roster spot well spent.

More often than not, teams would prioritize larger players with less skill over their smaller, more skilled counterparts at the draft, in free agency, and in trades. Longtime hockey executive and former Flames GM Brian Burke is known for insisting on including “truculence” and “character” on his teams and held this quality in higher regard than the ability to actually play the game of hockey— and he is not alone in this thinking.

However, as the years have gone by, this way of thinking has undergone a significant shift. Perhaps due to the influx of younger, more statistically-motivated executives like John Chayka and Kyle Dubas to the league and a greater emphasis being placed on the analytical side of the game, the NHL is moving away from the big-size-fits-all way of life.

The success stories of shorter NHL players have been well documented over the past few years, including those of Johnny Gaudreau and Tyler Johnson. In a recurring pattern, short, skilled players are often overlooked by NHL teams solely due to their size, and instead of being selected based purely on their skill, they fall to the later rounds of the draft (or even out of the draft) and are seen as “fliers” or “projects”.

Now, teams are going in a different direction, instead opting for skill over size and with stories like Gaudreau’s and Johnson’s, it looks like this paradigm shift is paying off.

But is the emergence of these undersized stories an indication of a widespread, league wide shift? Are smaller players finding their way into the NHL with more regularity than in years past? The answer is yes. In fact, over the last five years, the 2018 season included the most sub six-foot players to suit up for an NHL team. Over this timeframe, the average height in the NHL has remained consistent at 73 inches making six feet a reasonable marker to compare shorter-than-average NHLers.

Number of sub six-foot NHL players from 2014-2018

This figure is particularly interesting because last year the NHL had 31 teams as opposed to 30. With the inclusion of the Vegas Golden Knights, 35 players found themselves on that roster at some point over the season.

Correcting for the addition, the relative total of sub six-foot players still increased, as well as the average number of sub six-footers per team. In 2018, two of the top three scorers in the NHL were shorter than six-feet, and 19, or 33% of the top 58 scorers were under six feet.

The story continues. Not only were there more sub six-foot players in the NHL last year, but this set of players accounted for a higher games played average than in years past as well. In fact, the number of undersized players who hit the 30, 40, and 50 games played benchmarks increased last season by 14%, 15%, and 8% respectively.

Note: Although these bins are arbitrary, they do represent realistic values that have tangible meaning in the NHL today. This goes for all three binned charts that follow.

Games played by sub six-foot NHL players from 2014-2018

It is interesting to see that from 2014 to 2017, the number of undersized players hitting these games played markers actually decreased. 2018 saw a resurgence of these players not necessarily making NHL teams, but making an impact on their teams.

Games played markers are much more indicative of the undersized uprising in the NHL than simple raw totals as these are the players who actually make a difference on the ice day in and day out. We aren’t seeing teams’ small player being stereotypically “energy guys” or of Nathan Gerbe’s calibre anymore; now these players can actually play hockey at the NHL level and hold their own in games.

These players who have managed to hold NHL jobs for a significant portion of the season have not just stuck around in depth roles and on checking lines, by and large, they’ve usurped many top roles across the league.

For starters, their size doesn’t usually translate well to the grinding part of the game (unless your name is Sidney Crosby), but more so, undersized players nowadays possess high level talent and readily contribute on the scoresheet.

The trend in sub six-footers’ hitting games played thresholds is also visible in points thresholds. Similarly, the last five years has seen a 14%, 20%, and 23% increase in these players hitting 30, 40, and 50 point thresholds respectively from 2017 to 2018.

Points scored by sub six-foot NHL players from 2014 to 2018

For a few seasons, the number of 30, 40, and 50 point scorers who were shorter than six feet have increased. The most drastic increase occurred last season, most notably for the 50 point threshold. This suggests that younger scorers are finding their way into the NHL and contributing to their team’s success. And, these points aren’t just a result of residual secondary assists, goal scoring numbers have also increased, by 9%, 51%, and 24% for 15, 20, and 25 goal thresholds respectively.

Goals scored by sub six-foot NHL players from 2014 to 2018

The most dramatic increase, at the coveted 20 goal threshold, likely points to an increase of smaller players assuming primary offensive roles as opposed to bottom-six energy duties. Smaller players are trusted with providing offense for their teams and their ability to generate goals has and is increasing year to year.

The fact that the point total increase isn’t just due to “noise points” is a clear indication that the offensive load is being shouldered by this group of players more and more, and is a trend that should reasonably continue this season.

The NHL isn’t the bang-and-crash league it once was. Now, skill and speed reign supreme, taking over as being more desirable than just grit and toughness. Smaller players with skill are being given a real chance to showcase their abilities at the NHL level and these players have delivered.

From a Flames perspective, two of their leading prospects contending to make the NHL roster this year are Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube. Listed at 5’ 10” and 5’ 11” respectively, both have high point production at lower levels and are looking to translate that to the NHL this year.

Both have been given a chance to prove themselves in the preseason and both have survived the big wave of cuts on September 26th. In years past, Mangiapane and Dube would have been cut in favour of players like Garnet Hathaway and Buddy Robinson in a heartbeat, but not in today’s NHL.

It’s about time that teams are recognizing that dynamic Davids are better than gritty Goliaths.

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