Are the best teams the biggest in the NHL?

Are the best teams the biggest in the NHL?  In case you get into a friendly debate, some facts are helpful, so I recommend a recent article by James Mirtle in  Put the latest NHL standings next to the charts provided by Mirtle, and you’ll see … size doesn’t matter.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s top team, is also the smallest, using height or weight as the criteria (study the graph on this page). Some teams at or near the top of their division are “big.” Others are small. In other words, size is irrelevant.

How about individual players? Are the greatest also the biggest, now and throughout history? As a fun project, draw a line vertically down the middle of a sheet of paper (or spreadsheet) and start naming great players – big guys on one side and smaller ones on the other. Start with our own Minnesota Wild, where some of the impact players are the smallest and some are big.

Where do we place Wayne Gretzky or Duncan Keith? That depends on whether the criterion is height or weight (6-0 or 6-1, 165 pounds when they were rookies). Use, and to indulge a fan of old time hockey, please include a couple of my favorite centremen, Stan Mikita (5-9, 170) and Henri Richard (5-7, 160).  Place them across the page from another favorite, Jean Beliveau (6-3, 205). Same conclusion: Size is irrelevant.

You’ll find many players are average size – Sidney Crosby, for example. That’s the way statistics work if the data is random. However, this particular data is anything but random, given the scouts’ bias for size. A couple of decades ago when the league featured a lot of goons, some scouts would cross out anyone on the roster under six feet tall – BEFORE seeing him play! That’s the magic number, 182.9 cm. It’s somehow worlds apart from 181.9 cm.

What really matters is grit: Feisty competitiveness. It’s right at the top of the list, including vision, anticipation and rink sense, stick skills, playmaking and skating abilities.

By the way, skating is just as measurable as height and weight, so you might conclude that the annual testing at the NHL Combine includes skating speed and agility. This has much more to do with success in the NHL than height and weight. Surprisingly, the NHL tests do NOT include skating. Would a weekend of testing for potential baseball talent exclude batting, fielding and throwing? I doubt it.

If you’re a young player with all the tools but size, understand your advantage: Skating agility (changing directions quickly) depends on a low center of gravity in the same way a sports car has an advantage over a tall Jeep in a race with a lot of turns. Just watch a big, tall opponent try to catch Jared Spurgeon or Johnny Gaudreau in the corner.

Of course, the big guys have long, angry sticks, and size is their advantage in a collision, so keep your head up.