The good news for Nathan Gerbe is if and when he ever reaches his short-joke saturation point, he’s got a really big weapon to crack the comedian with.
“My stick is taller than me, it’s a pretty long stick,” Gerbe said.
The maximum shaft length allowed by the NHL is 63 inches, which is just two inches shorter than the 5-foot-5 Nathan Gerbe, according to NHL.com. But tack on a little extra length for the blade and suddenly you’ve got a Sabre outsized by his own sword.
Small guys tend to be in the league because they have great hands and conventional hockey wisdom states it’s easier to handle the puck with a shorter stick. By that logic, dimensions and the desire to accentuate their vital skill would lead one to believe undersized players should gravitate toward contracted composites, but that’s often not the case.
“I think most small guys (use long sticks), I’m starting to see,” Gerbe said. “It’s more for reach and I’ve learned to stickhandle in tight with it and shoot.”
The result of those shots has been steadily improving over the second half of the season. Buffalo’s rise after a slow start has coincided with better play from sophomore defenseman Tyler Myers, team backbone Ryan Miller and another diminutive player, rookie left winger Tyler Ennis. But Gerbe is certainly doing his part, too. The 23-year-old, playing in his first full NHL campaign, took 21 games to bag his first goal this season and had just that one through 25. In his past 33 contests, Gerbe has 13 goals, including six over his past eight outings.
“He’s really stepped his game up in the second half and I feel like he’s in the good spots and it looks like he’s got a bit of a magnet on his stick right now,” said Sabres top-line right winger Jason Pominville. “The pucks are finding him and he’s putting them away.”
It definitely hasn’t been smooth sailing all season for Gerbe, who missed games with a jaw injury and was a healthy scratch at times, including as recently as March 1. But just as the Sabres have been a much stronger team since the calendar turned to 2011, Gerbe is providing hard evidence that after being selected 142nd overall in 2005 – and no doubt dismissed because of his size countless times since – he has something to offer at the highest level.
“It’s just confidence,” Gerbe said of the turnaround. “You get a few bounces here and there, it’s not that I played bad in the first half, I thought I played hard and had my chances and just didn’t bear down. Now a few are going in and it’s a different year.”
The default notion that Gerbe is at an inherent disadvantage because of his size might be a little too easy to reach for. It’s one thing to be a middleweight in a heavyweight world, but being a flyweight gives you a different look altogether.
“He uses his small stature pretty well,” Pominville said. “He gets under players and he’s a tough guy to contain because he’s not in that 5-foot-11 range, so it’s something different you don’t see too often.”
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.