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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.