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Sizing up this Draft

August 5, 2018, 8:34 AM ET [7 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
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Used to be, that for a typical prospect under six feet tall, his chances of getting drafted early were six feet under. Of course there were clear exceptions when Patrick Kane’s extraordinary skills made him by far the best prospect. And there always have been clubs successfully shrimping later in the first round for Danny Brieres and having little to lose taking late-round fliers on Johnny Gaudreaus.

But bigger had become better with the success of the Broad Street Bullies in the mid-seventies, when the only way it was safe to go to the Spectrum was with 6-foot-plus first and second-round picks like the Islanders selected. When the age of draft eligibility dropped from 20 to 18 in 1980, the size of the prospect’s mother and father became almost as legitimate a consideration as the kid’s skill level. Would the 5-10 dangler grow the two inches and put on the twenty pounds likely necessary to becoming somebody you could win with?

A little closer to present day, the death of the 5-11 Sam Gagner-kind-of-a-pick was hastened by Sam Gagners becoming classic tweeners. As the average size of human beings grew, the rink had become too mini for the midi, much to the detriment of the game.

It has become clear, however, that big is being buried. Well, maybe not so in goal, where Gumpers have been put in the dumpster, but on defense, strapping has been taken to the woodshed and, as for forwards, well Nathan Gerbe can come back now; all is forgiven. Each draft has so many skilled, mid-sized, models that all 30 teams can now be offered amnesty for not having wanted to spend even a seventh rounder on Mats Zuccarello.

On Friday night, we watched seven defensemen under six feet tall get taken in the first round, including–holy Curt Giles!–5-9 Quinn Hughes at seventh overall. There was barely a scout who didn’t project Joe Veleno as a bedrock winger on contenders for 15 years, but he became Detroit’s bargain at No. 30 because more than ever, teams are going for good things in smaller packages.

As three more D under 6-0 were taken in the second round before Philadelphia, to no one’s apparent excitement, selected 6-4 Adam Ginning, it became even more apparent the guys who will get to the NHL by taking care of the front of the net have become the projects, not the bedrock picks they once were.

Projecting a shutdown D because of his reach has apparently become a reach. The game has gotten so quick that size doesn’t matter much anymore. The defensive defensemen once considered necessary to stay at home on each pair has increasingly found a home on the third pair. Here is the question the scouting director first asks: Is the kid already making a good first pass? If not, then we will pass.

And we’re not just talking about defense, either. Everybody still wants a big center, sure, as long as he can skate and even in the dark ages when Mike Ricci was considered the safer top-five pick than Jaromir Jagr, allowances generally were made for the creative, 5-11 guy in the middle, provided he was deemed tough enough to survive.

But now guys that size are okay on the wing, too. Thanks to mandates about player safety and the ability of the D-men to get rid of the puck even faster than teams blew off Brian Gionta, games aren’t being won nearly as much anymore along the boards, and if they are, it’s with quick hands more than raw power.

This isn’t dramatically new, Tyler Ennis. . Jaden Schwartz. . . we can go back 15 years and see plenty of teams making top 20 picks of smallish forwards. But this draft demonstrated how almost everybody is thinking that way now.

The last bastion of effectively big and heavy probably were the Kings, who twice in this decade have lifted a 34 ½ pound Stanley Cup like a feather. But without a series win in the four years since their last championship, the Kings have a clunker of a contender as the game continues to open back up,

Teams averaged 2.71 goals per game in 2014-15. Last year it was 2.97 a percentage probably to continue to grow. Thank goodness for that because that game had become over-coached and over-defended. There has been too much north-south as opposed to the more creative east-west and, for that matter, not enough acrobatic post-to-post saves by this generation of big and marvelously athletic goalies, either Their game has become the art of finding pucks through screens.

Too many blacked shots have yielded too many missed tries for tips. Or, missed corners, for lack of lanes to get the puck through. As a result, too often you have to watch the replay to actually see how the puck went in and, thanks to the elimination of the red line, have seen the virtual disappearance of the breakaway pass to the winger. That rules change, which only served to back defensemen off, has had he opposite effect of what was intended.

Too many lines on the ice have been removed or moved unnecessarily. It’s time to start thinking about putting them back the way they were. From his office, Wayne Gretzky warned us that moving the goalline out wasn’t going to increase scoring but we didn’t listen.

As human beings got bigger with each generation, I believed–and take my word for it, I didn’t just advocate this after the fact-that the NHL made a huge mistake not widening its official ice surface before the building boom of arenas in the nineties. We were not advocating all the way to international size width, only a few feet to open up some room in a game that was rapidly closing down thanks to the stifling defensive structure increasingly necessary to win.

I congratulated myself with ‘told ya’s’ well past the interference crackdown coming out of the lockout, because scoring continued to shrink. But now simple, pure, evolution is fixing the problem, always preferable to tampering with a basic game that has thrilled us for well past a century and is on the upswing again.

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