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Insider

Size growing in importance to NHL teams

5/16/2013
Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are part of the Kings' superskilled, and supersized, roster. AP Photo/Matt York

There's a little bit of roster envy going on among NHL general managers right now. The reigning champ Los Angeles Kings' makeup of a big, heavy and fast team is clicking again, and as teams are eliminated, they're realizing the necessity of playing that way in today's NHL postseason.

The Kings forwards feature 6-foot-4 Jeff Carter, 6-4 Dwight King, 6-3 Anze Kopitar, 6-3 Jordan Nolan and 6-5 Dustin Penner, among others. Dustin Brown is only 6-foot but plays such a physical game during the playoffs that it doesn't matter. His style certainly is heavy.

And now other teams are playing catch-up.

"When I took this job, we decided on a style of play that resulted in great success. Clearly the landscape has changed, and we have to address those changes moving forward," said Canucks GM Mike Gillis during his season-ending press conference. "It's quite clear the league is going in a direction that we have to recognize and adapt to. It doesn't just happen in one playoff series."

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin echoed the thoughts of his colleague in Vancouver after Montreal was knocked out by the Senators, although he suggested the need for more balance.

"You can't have all big guys; you can't win with all small guys," he said. "Character comes into play. I don't care how big you are, if you have no character you're not going to succeed."

The problem for teams looking for speed and size is twofold. It's a rare commodity, and there's an entire league on the prowl for it.

"There's 29 other teams that want to be big, fast and strong," Bergevin said. "That's easier said than done."

Said Gillis: "When every team is seeking the same thing, it's hard to do."

So where do teams find that size for next season?

Many teams have had or are having their amateur scouting meetings right now, and the best way to transform a team is through the draft. The problem is, many of the highly skilled forwards in this year's crop aren't necessarily big. Nathan MacKinnon is 6-foot, Jonathan Drouin is 5-10, Hunter Shinkaruk is 5-10 and Elias Lindholm is 6-foot.

It makes 6-3 Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin more intriguing than ever. One scout said he'd be the No. 1 pick if it weren't for his passport. Any team that drafts him will have competition from the KHL for his services, which makes him a risk. Teams will be eager to hear what he has to say during interviews at the upcoming draft combine in Toronto.

But his rare combo of size and skill in this draft means anyone picking in the top five has to give him a good, hard look.

"When you look at the players that make this draft so exciting, I don't think it's necessarily the size or the physicality of the players," said one team's director of amateur scouting. "That is something you have to work into your draft if you're going to try and change the makeup of your team."

He said his team has multiple lists when getting ready to draft -- a big board with overall rankings, along with a chart of players listed by their characteristics. So as the draft progresses and you want to add size and physicality, you might have to pass on someone ranked higher to complement your current core.

He pointed to a player like Tom Wilson, whom the Capitals picked with the No. 16 overall pick last June. He's 6-4, a good skater with good pucks skills and can shoot the puck. He's already made his NHL postseason debut.

"He might get pushed up on a list because of his size and physicality," he said. "Truth be told, he moved up on our list."

This year's version of players who might move up because of their size comes from the U.S. development team, with 6-2 John Hayden, 6-5 Michael McCarron and 6-2 Hudson Fasching those who stand out. None of them are ranked in the top 25 among North American skaters by Central Scouting -- Fasching is No. 40 on Insider scout Grant Sonier's Top 50 -- but it wouldn't surprising if their size earned them a bump up among teams selecting.

The question then becomes: Can they translate size into a physical presence? There's a bit of projection going on in the scouting community since some players don't necessarily have to play with physicality at their current level to be successful. Scouts hope that players with size eventually evolve into physical players in order to make the NHL and find their niche in the league.

And then there's free agency. Last year, Montreal's signing of Brandon Prust to a four-year contract worth $10 million raised eyebrows, considering he was coming off a 17-point season. But it was a great signing for the Canadiens, and chances are the physicality Prust immediately brings to a lineup would earn him more if he hit the market this year. A player like that is a valuable commodity, especially when you look at this year's free-agent class. The best forwards -- Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, Stephen Weiss and Valtteri Filppula -- aren't big, nor do they bring a physical presence.

It's why guys like Ryane Clowe, Brenden Morrow and Viktor Stalberg will be sought after if they hit free agency. Each one has his flaws, but they all bring size, physicality, speed or all of the above, something GMs desperately want.

On the flip side, it sets up a potential Moneyball situation for teams willing to take a chance and go in the other direction. If big-money franchises like Vancouver and Montreal start bidding against each other for size and physicality while other teams move big players up their draft board, there could be an opportunity for a small-market franchise to get full value out of smaller, skilled players.

It's about staying ahead of the trends, something you have to give Kings GM Dean Lombardi full credit for. He wasn't late to the game on this, and it's paying off while teams try to catch up.

"L.A. did a good job," said one exec. "They drafted and developed [many of] those players. It's not like they went out and got those players last year and added them this year. It's a well-thought-out process."