Common Misconceptions: “Too small to play in the NHL”

Every year we hear some derivative of “skilled, but is he too small to play professionally?” or “has the tools, but can he make it work in the NHL at his size?” 

These types of statements portray that short players almost never make the NHL and the ones that do must be very special. However, what’s actually happening tells a different story from this common misconception.

THE NUMBERS

The following analysis is a height breakdown of all forwards drafted between 1980 and 2015. I’ve grouped players that are 5’8″ or smaller and players that are 6’6 or taller, as there is very few of these players. 

The first breakdown is the physical counts of impact point producer successes (0.6+ points/gp over the course of their career who played at least 150 games), other successes (made the NHL and played at least 150 games), busts (didn’t make the NHL in any meaningful form) and developing prospects (newer prospects that haven’t made the NHL yet). 

Size Chart 1

Few players from the 5’8″ and smaller group and the 5’9″ groups have been drafted over the past 35 years (only 160 players this size have been drafted during that time – four drafted players per year on average). As a result of the small group of drafted players, there’s naturally few successes from that group as well (i.e., fewer than 50 players 5’9″ and below have made the NHL in the past 35 years). This is likely why hockey ops departments and MSM are very skeptical about a short player making the NHL: it’s so rare that they see it so it appears to be an impossible feat.  

Next, let’s look at those same numbers (impact successes, other successes and busts while removing developing prospects) in percentages, instead of totals, to see how things change.

Size Chart 2

When we break down the groups in percentages instead of physical counts the story looks completely different. Shorter players show a nearly identical success rate to average-sized players and taller player players (~20% success rate).

Making the NHL is one thing, but thriving in the NHL and becoming an impact point producer is a whole different animal, and something that few players do (roughly eight players per draft will become an impact point producer). Below is a view comparing the proportion of total successes that amassed into impact point producers by each height group.

Size Chart 3

While we’re dealing with small sample sizes, the proportion of small player successes that turned into impact point producers is dramatically higher than any other height group. And this does not factor in the small impact (even elite) players that were never drafted like Joe Mullen, Marty St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello and Tyler Johnson.

As well, while too small to excel in the NHL does not appear to be a real argument given their comparable ability to make the NHL and greater likelihood to thrive in the NHL, being too tall to excel in NHL could very well be a real thing (one that I’ve never heard a hockeys ops department or sportscast talk about). Only ~20% of all successful drafted forwards that were 6’5″ or taller turned into impact point producers, which is the lowest success rate of any size group. Moreover, not one of the successes from the 6’6″ group ever turned into an impact point producer. 

Many players in the 6’2″ to 6’4″ range have amounted to impact scorers, but there appears to be a cut off where the best you can hope for is production similar to Nick Bjugstad or Brian Boyle (30-40 points a year). This phenomenon doesn’t apply to defencemen and goalies, as there’s a number of current and past defencemen and goalies that excelled at this size.

This is something that is concerning as less skilled, extremely tall players are often picked over smaller skilled players because it’s believed to be a miracle if a smaller player makes the NHL and thrives, when it’s actually over-sized players this type of narrative should be applied to. What makes it worse is when we look at where small and very tall players are picked. 

Size Chart 4

Incredibly, 30% of all very tall players are picked in rounds one and two, while only 10% of small players are chosen in the first two rounds. In fact, nearly 60% of all smaller players were taken in the sixth round or later and they make the NHL as much as average sized and tall players. This is compounded as the success rates of making the NHL in the first two rounds is about 3.5 times larger than the success rate of making the NHL in later rounds (42% vs. 12%). 

Teams don’t like to be wrong, especially about high picks. So it’s highly plausible that a few of the very tall players that even made the NHL probably had no business doing so, but were given every opportunity to succeed because of where they were drafted. Keep in mind big players are far more likely to stick around on a roster as “checker” or “grinder” as well.  

CONCLUSION

Contrary to popular belief, picking a smaller player doesn’t seem to be the risky pick it is believed to be. Put in the right context, small players are not unlikely to make the NHL, rather they’re unlikely to get drafted and therefore unlikely to make the NHL. 

Small players are the best value pick you can find. Many have very good-to-elite scoring totals that suggest elite talent, but they go in the later rounds. Small players without elite numbers aren’t taken at all. Maybe they’re signed as free agents, but only after they destroy the NCAA or a European league after their draft eligible year(s). Then there’s probably hundreds more small players that could have been reliable energy players or penalty killers but never got chosen or seriously scouted. 

Meanwhile, if a player is extremely tall and made the CHL, USHL or a European feeder league, they will likely get drafted, and often much earlier than they should be, regardless of their skill or ability to produce points. Many of these players are often unable to make the NHL, or are only playing a few minutes a night in a sheltered role.

Hopefully a new NHL and players like Johnny Gaudreau, Brendan Gallagher and Tyler Ennis pave the way for smaller players to be drafted and given a chance to succeed. Then again, Theo Fleury was chosen 166th overall in 1987 and Mark Recchi went in the fourth round the year after despite having numbers indicative of top five picks. A few years later, Marty St. Louis needed to play four years of college before a team took a chance on him (despite putting up numbers you see maybe a few times a decade), only to release him because he was too small, and another team pick him up. Marc Savard went in the fourth round in 1995, after leading the entire OHL in scoring in his draft year.

Fast forward to 2011: Gaudreau went in the fourth round, while leading all USHL rookies in scoring and having numbers indicative of a late first rounder. And in 2016, Alex DeBrincat amassed 101 points in the OHL in his draft year (second highest total of all first-year eligible players in the OHL). The only bad thing scouts could say about him was “he’s short,” and he went 39th overall (which is actually quite high, but he should have been a top 10 pick).  

The short player steal still exists today. I trust that more and more analytical tools will point towards small players being able to thrive in NHL, but I’m not sure they’ll ever be taken where they should be.

  • SmellOfVictory

    I think there are a lot of possible interpretations of the data. We could say that NHL teams often overlook smaller players when they shouldn’t, because smaller players tend to turn out better, true.

    But we could also look at it as: in order to be a functional NHLer, a smaller player generally has to be dynamic offensively. Therefore, those smaller players who do make the NHL inherently produce more points.

    Additionally, if the percentages of successes/busts are roughly even across the board in spite of fewer small players being taken, that may suggest that NHL teams are doing a pretty good job of scouting/acquiring these smaller players efficiently.

    I think another significant thing to note is the fact that the average height in North America is roughly 5’10 for a male. There is an inherently larger talent pool of guys between ~5’9-5’11 than at the other heights, due to anatomical averages. In spite of this fact, we see the height bell curve for NHLers sits roughly 3 inches taller than the average for the population as a whole (and even if we focus on whites, since the NHL is predominantly white, the NHL average is still above the normal average by 1-2 inches). We can’t say whether this is the result of drafting bias or a fundamental result of a general correlation between size (to a point) and effectiveness, but it could certainly be either.

    • cberg

      An excellent article overall with lots to think about.

      I do agree with the above that certain NHL roles tend to attract certain sized players more than others (i.e. defensemen & Goalies=very large), and that if small players are not offensively-gifted they are usually overlooked.

      As far as the Flames go, I wonder what’s in the water here, with Flames’ management giving a chance to arguably three of the top “mini-players” of the past few decades in Fleury, Martin St Louis and now Johnny Gaudreau? Good on us. Here’s to hoping a few more, namely Mangiapanne, Fox, Dube and Phillips keep that trend going into the future.

  • jupiter

    I believe that small players do thrive in the regular season, but have more difficulty succeeding in the playoffs than larger players.

    And yea the officiating in the playoffs get’s slanted to heavy hockey.

    Smaller players are quicker on there skates.

    • Byron Bader

      Could be some truth here for sure. Especially for the non-superstar caliber short players. Very valid point and perhaps provides some reasoning to why they’re still seldom drafted, and very late if so.

  • Jake the Snail

    Fleury and St Louis played for the Flames within the old NHL rules. Fleury was highly successful, St Louis was not – he had difficulty functioning in the o-zone and was released. St Louis became successful in the new NHL where d-men and back-checking forwards could no longer clutch and grab…

    One at a time for the future smaller players though, Mangiapane likely gets the first crack at it!

    • Your narrative for Martin St. Louis isn’t completely accurate. He managed 70 points and 94 point seasons between 2002 and 2004, still the dead puck era. He led the Lightning in scoring by 14 points the year they won the cup even though clutching and grabbing were still very common.

      • Greatsave

        And to put those numbers in context, in 2003-04 MSL led the league in assists (tied with Gomez) and points (7 points clear of Sakic and Kovalchuk), and was fourth in goals (behind a three-way tie between Iggy, Nash, and Kovalchuk).

      • beloch

        It’s also worth noting that Martin St. Louis, while short, was not a small player. He was heavy for his height. It’s possible it took him a few years to develop those tree-trunk legs of his but, once he had them, he was a very hard player to muscle off the puck. Fleury was no light-weight himself. Hockeydb has him listed as 5’6″ tall and 180 lbs of pure, spitting rage.

        One thing people often fail to appreciate is that power-to-weight ratio decreases as height increases. If two players weigh the same, the shorter guy is going to have a higher effective strength. He’s also going to have a lower center of gravity. Both are huge in hockey. I suspect the data in this article might show some more interesting correlations if height was replaced with weight/height.

        While Fleury and St. Louis did excel in the “dead puck” era, I think it would be harder for lighter players (for their height) to succeed back then. Kane, although significantly taller than both St. Louis and Fleury, actually weighs less than either of them. Gaudreau, of course, is a shrimp who uses an intermediate stick. Both of these guys would likely have been far less effective back when Fleury was playing. It’s good for the game that the rules have evolved to let sublime skill conquer all.

        If weight/height is a more predictive factor than just height, that still doesn’t make predicting how prospects will develop easy. Some 18-year-olds have a lot of filling out to do. Others look like they will fill-out, but then don’t.

        • Byron Bader

          Totally agree, Beloch. You read my mind. Was going to start looking at that next.

          On this note … Rem Pitlick. 5’9, 200 pounds basically all muscle, fast as lightning. Predators got a gem of an overager in that guy.

        • Greatsave

          I suspect the difficulty in using height/weight ratio is that, as you implied, it changes over the course of a player’s career, because weight and be gained and lost, whereas height remains relatively stable. For example, Joe Thornton was 6’4″ on his rookie cards, and about 200 pounds; he’s now at 220. Similarly, Jagr was 6’2″ on his rookie cards and between 198 and 208 pounds; he’s now listed as 6’3″ and 230 pounds.

  • Jake the Snail

    Q: Will Tkachuk, the ‘power forward’ with likely average skating ability or Nylander, the shorter, slighter player with elite skills have a better career?

    Although FN bloggers were supporting Nylander as the Flames pick, this was soon forgotten when Tkachuk fell to the Flames!

    • Byron Bader

      Most would prefer Tkachuk over Nylander. Tkachuk is extremely skilled and has a big frame and outscored Nylander by a huge amount in the same league (probably helped by his linemates).

      I think most people preferred Nylander at six if Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi, Dubois and Tkachuk were all gone. Tkachuk falls to six … no brainer to pick him over Nylander, especially given the Flames needs.

    • Baalzamon

      I don’t know that any of the bloggers preferred Nylander, but I certainly did. And still do. The bloggers in general figured Tkachuk would be gone before 6th (as did I actually, even though I had Tkachuk as the 7th best prospect in the draft).

      When I say that I don’t mean any disrespect to Tkachuk, I just think Nylander is the better prospect.

    • cberg

      I think you are grossly misrepresenting the skills of the two players. Certainly, Nylander is to this point a much better skater, but to portray Nylander as having elite skills and Tkachuk not is way off base. As far as I can tell both have very good to elite shot, play-making and finishing skills while Tkachuk is much better than Nylander along the boards and net-front (and by extension in the play-offs), and has way more competitive drive.

    • FireScorpion

      Nylander was supported at that time because there was NO WAY Tkachuk was falling to the Flames and as such he didn’t get a lot of the discussion.

      Tkachuk is exactly what the team needs though.

  • Parallex

    “Additionally, if the percentages of successes/busts are roughly even across the board in spite of fewer small players being taken, that may suggest that NHL teams are doing a pretty good job of scouting/acquiring these smaller players efficiently.”

    Hmmm… if that’s the case would it not also suggest then that NHL teams are doing a poor job of scouting the very tall players particularly at the high end of the draft?

    The distribution of the very short and very tall draftee’s suggests that by an large scouts see the inherient difficulty in both sets making the NHL (The round they are taken in most often is the 7th round for both). But the disparity in 1st round selections seems to point towards the bias.

    Perhaps the take away shouldn’t be that very small players are undervalued but rather that very big players are overvalued.

  • Parallex

    Interesting sidenote: This past draft the Flames drafted both the shortest player (Phillips) in the draft and the (tied for) 2nd tallest (Falkovsky). I rather liked both picks.

  • thumz

    I’d be super intrigued to see the analysis with relative to team corsi % as the success criteria for being an impact player rather than points. I bet small players HAVE to score lots of points to be successful because they can’t influence the game as much in other areas.

    • Byron Bader

      I don’t have that data but would guess it would be the opposite. A lot of possession is about hanging on to the puck and moving it to an open spot to generate a shot attempt against … this is how a small player survives in the NHL.

      Most checkers hemorrhage shot attempts against and most of these guys are big, big guys.

      My guess is many of small players that make the NHL would be better than average possession players and the very tall guys would be the absolute worst by a wide margin.

        • Byron Bader

          Dmen are completely removed from this analysis. It’s just forwards. I agree with you … there’s a lot more not so obvious, intangible stuff that’s going on with d that it’s harder to measure with similar analysis.

  • mattyc

    Great article (as always). It would be interesting to compare the draft-success percentages to the entire NHL population percentage. I suspect the high percentage of small players succeeding is that teams are so reluctant to draft a small player (“Can’t teach size!”) that they won’t draft a player they don’t give a high likelihood of success, while they’d be more willing to draft a ‘project player’ if they’re 6’2.