By now, it’s been well established that smaller players can thrive in the NHL. Brian Rafalski, Martin St-Louis and Brian Gionta lead the charge, while Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe head the next wave.
But this summer’s draft class poses an interesting conundrum: How high a pick will teams use on pint-sized prospects? Pre-draft rankings only mean so much and as we saw last season, there is the potential for teams to get gun-shy once Gary Bettman calls them up to the podium.
The trend in 2010 saw players with fierce personalities trump the more laid-back cats, which meant blueliners Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley slid to the middle of the first round instead of their expected slots in the top-5. Fowler, of course, has already made that rationale look silly by jumping straight to the NHL with Anaheim and logging major minutes (averaging more than 22 minutes per game).
But talking with scouts and execs, there seems to be a quiet confidence in players such as 5-foot-6 center Rocco Grimaldi and undersized offensive defenseman Ryan Murphy.
“If anything,” one NHL exec said, “teams will trade up to make sure they land that particular skill set.”
Grimaldi, a star with the U.S. national team development program, has been dazzling observers all season with his offensive prowess.
“He’s a special small player,” the exec said. “Everywhere he’s been, he’s been dynamic.”
Murphy, of course, started the season on fire for the Ontario League’s Kitchener Rangers and though he’s no longer the leading scorer from the blueline in the league, he’s drawn praise in comparison to the player who passed him.
“He’s like a better-skating Ryan Ellis,” another NHL exec said. “And look where Nashville took Ellis.”
That would be 11th overall in 2009. So by that logic, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Murphy crack the top-10 this summer if a team really wants him, the way Carolina coveted another Kitchener product – Jeff Skinner – and nabbed him at No. 7. We all know how that move has turned out.
For whatever reason, this year’s draft class features a lot of small options from the U.S. Kyle Rau, who plays Minnesota high school hockey for the Eden Prairie Eagles, has scouts divided on his worth. Some see the 5-foot-8 pivot as a warrior with determination and hockey sense; others think he plays the perimeter too much already. NHL Central Scouting had him listed at No. 176 among North American skaters in its mid-term ranking, while International Scouting Services doesn’t have him listed at all.
In the United States League, the smallest of them all is causing noise. John Gaudreau of the Dubuque Fighting Saints comes in at 5-foot-6, 141 pounds, yet he’s one of the top goal-scorers in the league.
“A lot of these guys are making impacts,” the first exec said. “Scoring goals in the USHL has never been easy and he could get 40 this year. He was the U.S.’s best player at the Ivan Hlinka this summer.”
The exec went on to say he wouldn’t be surprised to see a team use a third round selection on Gaudreau, just in case he can carry his offensive proficiency on to the pros.
Other small USHL prospects include Cason Hohmann and Austin Czarnik, both of whom come in at 5-foot-8.
There is of course risk in drafting the smaller players. Columbus’ Kris Russell, for example, is still finding his way in the NHL as a 5-foot-10, 174-pound defenseman. Drafted as an offensive blueliner, Russell has been a healthy scratch twice this season and has never put up more than 22 points in a year. He has also lost his spot on the top power play unit to Grant Clitsome.
But the draft is all about potential and for the Grimaldis and Murphys of the world, the stigma of size that would have dropped them a few years ago is largely disappearing. Assuming the NHL’s collective brain trust doesn’t get cold feet in June, that is.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday.