Vancouver Canucks fans got a treat last night – a glimpse of the possibilities that come with defenseman Troy Stecher. An undrafted free agent signing out of the University of North Dakota, Stecher is competitive, a pain to play against, offensively dangerous and brings an active stick on the defensive end. Why was Stecher undrafted, you ask? Well, he was only 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds back then (now he’s up to 190).
Despite the fact he was putting up great numbers in the BCHL for Penticton (where he won the national Jr. A championship RBC Cup in 2012), the call never came and size is the most obvious factor. But timing was also against Stecher.
Only now are we really seeing smaller defensemen get a fair shake and I predict that the next two drafts will be watershed moments. Some of the most exciting blueliners available will, barring a growth spurt, come in at 5-foot-10 or less: Erik Brannstrom and Clayton Phillips in 2017 and Quinn Hughes in 2018.
I call it the “Jared Spurgeon Effect.”
The Minnesota Wild defenseman has managed to carve out a nice career for himself, despite coming in at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds today, as a 26-year-old. Spurgeon was picked late by the New York Islanders in 2008 (he was their 12th pick, 156th overall), but went unsigned, inking a deal with the Wild instead. Last season, he played the toughest minutes of any Minnesota player while also ranking second in scoring and ice time (Ryan Suter was first in both cases) among Wild blueliners. Dude can play, even if he’s not built like a cement-mixer.
Which is where Stecher comes in. Will he make the Canucks this season? Hard to say right this second, but he’s definitely making great noise for the future. Just check out his poise and vision on this set-up from last night against Edmonton:
All told, Stecher had a goal and two assists in a 5-3 exhibition win over the Oilers. Vancouver can look at what Spurgeon has done and see Stecher’s future. The game is faster now and puckmoving defensemen are at a premium. If you can carry it and dish it, you’re a lot more valuable than the old-school bouncer who made sure the crease was a no-fly zone for opponents. And hey; you still need that element to an extent, but hockey smarts and an active stick can be just as effective.
While GMs have been reticent in the past to draft small early, Arizona made a big statement this summer when the Coyotes took center Clayton Keller (5-foot-10, 168 pounds) with the seventh pick overall. Now that the forwards taboo has been broken, can defensemen be next? It’s tricky, because traditionally progress has been slow. But with more teams employing analytics gurus, or execs with that background, perhaps the future will come sooner than expected.
And if Stecher should see time with the Canucks this season, even as a call-up in his first year of pro, then excuse the cliché, but he’ll be winning one for the little guy.