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The Last Word: Put down the tape measure and pick skill over size

NHL teams are risk-averse when it comes to an early draft pick. But instead of ensuring a safe selection, they should ponder the small package slipping through their fingers.

On the night of March 15, USA Hockey’s under-18 National Team Development Program was in the midst of a weekend series in which it would outscore the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL by a 25-5 margin. That happened fairly regularly this season, because this version of the U.S. under-18 team just happens to be the best one ever assembled since the program began 23 years ago.

Cole Caufield opened the scoring 37 seconds into the game and ended it in the third period when No. 1 NHL draft prospect Jack Hughes assisted on the play. A right-handed shot, Caufield was open at the left circle and buried a one-time slapshot over the goalie’s shoulder. The goal was the 12th of the night for the under-18s and the sixth of the game for Caufield. It was also Caufield’s 105th goal in two years with the program, which made him the all-time leading goal-scorer in the history of the NTDP. The assist was Hughes’ 190th career point, which made him the program’s all-time points leader.

Aside from his sublime talent level, everything about Caufield screams hockey player. His grandfather, Wayne, grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., with the Esposito brothers before spending his career in the minor leagues. Wayne finished his playing days in Milwaukee and settled there and is in the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame as a youth hockey coach. Cole’s father, Paul, won three NCAA Div. III championships at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and is the school’s all-time leading scorer. He’s also the manager of the rink where his two sons played their youth hockey.

But here’s the thing. Caufield’s grandfather was 5-foot-8, and his father was 5-foot-10. He drew the short straw literally and figuratively, checking in at a very generous 5-foot-7. And despite the fact there is ample evidence to suggest small players can be major offensive contributors in today’s NHL, teams still scout using a tape measure. If Caufield were doing what he’s doing this season at six-foot – heck, if he were even as tall as the 5-foot-10 Hughes, who’s small himself by NHL standards – Caufield would be seriously challenging for first overall in the 2019 NHL draft.

But he’s not. He has been pushed down the rankings because of his size. Every scouting report you will ever read on him from now until the end of time will start with something like: “Despite his lack of size” or “Terrific small player.” Just once, wouldn’t it be great to read about a lumbering specimen: “Despite being a 6-foot-4 doofus who has the foot speed of an arctic glacier and couldn’t hit an open net from five feet out…”

Things have come a long way since the 1980s and ’90s, when a player like Steve Sullivan spent the first part of his career stuck on the fourth line while simultaneously being on the first power-play unit. The likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point and Alex DeBrincat continue to knock over barriers that suggest a small player can’t excel in the best league in the world.

But there’s no question the notion persists that big players will always get the benefit of the doubt and prove they can’t play, while small guys have to prove they can. In case you haven’t noticed, attitudes and perceptions last a long time in this game.

Take DeBrincat, for example. “I s---canned DeBrincat in his draft year,” acknowledged one NHL scout. But if I’m the owner of a team other than the Chicago Blackhawks, I’d be questioning why I’m spending millions on scouting and player development when a kid who scored 50 goals in his draft year was passed over 38 times, then went on to score 40 goals in the NHL. I’d also be asking why a skinny, sub-six-footer who had 21 points in seven games at the 2011 world under-18s went 58th overall, then went on to lead the NHL in scoring this season. (Nikita Kucherov, in case you’re wondering.)

There’s actually a fairly simple answer to all of this. NHL teams are risk-averse, particularly when it comes to drafting players high. A GM or scouting staff is going to go for what they think is a sure thing, even if it means missing out on a player who has a little more risk and a much higher ceiling.

This is not to disparage Frederik Gauthier, but the Toronto Maple Leafs used a 2013 first-round pick on a player who will almost certainly never play more than a fourth-line role. And the thing is, they were fully aware of what they were getting when they took Gauthier with the 21st overall selection in 2013. Four picks later, the Montreal Canadiens did the same with 6-foot-6, 230-pound Michael McCarron. Meanwhile, a slight 5-foot-11 kid named Jake Guentzel went in the third round, and all he did was score 23 goals in two Stanley Cup runs before netting 40 this season.

Perhaps it’s time NHL teams put less stock in how far a player can jump or how many sit-ups he can do or what his maximum bench press is and look at what these guys can do on the ice. The on-ice product is right there for everyone to see. Scouts have seen it this season with Caufield, and maybe, just maybe, one of those teams will have the stones to take him with one of the top 10 picks. If not, they might all be looking back five years from now wondering how a premier offensive talent slipped through their fingers.

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