How the game has changed
Part 3: What a Scout Wants
This is the third entry in a series of posts on how the NHL's on-ice product has evolved from before the lockout to 2007-08. Part 2 on the growing production by younger players can be found here.
I talked about it a little bit in a post on smaller defencemen, including the likes of Atlanta's Tobias Enstrom, but one of the real trends postlockout has been toward a smaller NHL. It's something that speaks to how the game is played, and by extension how it's changed, and I think we've really started to see the results in the entry draft.
There was some criticism of the post on young players for using too small of a sample size, but that really stems from just how easy it is to collect the data — and the same can be said of the draft. It's simple enough to find the heights and weights of the recently drafted as far back as 2000, but NHL.com's not-so-vast resources don't offer information like that any further back.
With that in mind, this is the best I could come up with — the average height and weight of first-round picks from the past 10 drafts:
Now, this isn't exactly a linear trend, but the size of players picked post-2005 is certainly on the lowest end of the curve here. This past summer's draft had a first-overall pick who was 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds (Patrick Kane) and six more players at 175 pounds or less. Six players are listed under six feet, and only one is heavier than 213 pounds (Alex Plante, picked by the Oilers at 15th overall).
The 2004 draft, which was the peak of average height and weight in our sample here, had a first round that averaged more than 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds. There was some real beef taken that season, including 6-foot-7, 212-pound Boris Valabik, 6-foot-6, 212-pound Jeff Schultz and 6-foot-2, 232-pound Mark Fistric. Robbie Schremp was the only player listed under six feet tall, and no one weighed in at less than the 178 pounds that Alex Radulov tipped the scales at.
That's quite a contrast, three years apart.
Now, the data for the 1998 and 1999 drafts had to be cobbled together from a variety of sources, and may not be 100-per-cent accurate, but in all eight other years, it comes straight from the predraft combines. All candidates stepped on the same scale and were put through the same tests by Central Scouting, so the data is about as close to unquestionable as possible.
Back home, I did a few years of junior scouting work in the WHL for McKeen's Hockey, and in following the draft five or six years ago, I noticed a few trends. Anyone under six feet — or even 6-foot-1 — always had a much more difficult time cracking the first round, and there were some pretty talented smallish players taken either late in those rounds or in the second, third or later rounds.
A few smallish players that slipped through the cracks from 2000-04: Derek Roy (2nd round), Mike Cammalleri (2nd), Antoine Vermette (2nd), Trevor Daley (2nd), Tomas Plekanec (3rd), Lubomir Visnovsky (4th), John-Michael Liles (5th), Marek Zidlicky (6th), Jussi Jokinen (6th), Matt Lombardi (7th, 3rd), Antti Miettinen (7th), Marek Svatos (7th), Petr Prucha (8th).
On the flip side, some big kids — like Fistric — always went higher than their talent level would seem to dictate.
I suppose the question is: Do these overlooked smaller players become first rounders under the new system of scouting? Or are they bumped up a round or two? Does being 180 pounds or less at 17 or 18 no longer count against juniors the way it seemingly always has?
I think you can argue smaller players were always picked — they were just always the flyers and never the sure things. Most of the time teams only have one first-round pick to hang their hat on, and prelockout, that was rarely used on an undersized teen.
Here's a look at an average of the weight of players taken in "big" drafts (2004 and 2005) and small (2006 and 2007), sorted by the round players were picked:
What a scout wants looks quite a bit different than it used to.
What we need is a few more postlockout seasons to really flesh out the trends and, more importantly, to start seeing them show-up to a greater degree in the big leagues. I think we're already well on our way to a smaller man's NHL, something you can witness in where scouts hang their hats.
And my friends at McKeen's say 'small is in' for 2008.