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Insider

Why heavy NHL players are underrated

2/16/2011

In early 2003, it seemed NHL scouts didn't know what to make of Dustin Byfuglien. On one hand, he had great size. But, on the other hand, he might've had too much size for his own good, tipping the scales at a reported 255 pounds. So the NHL Central Scouting Bureau tacked him on at the very end of its Midterm Rankings at No. 240.

In retrospect, Byfuglien -- a 2011 NHL All-Star -- obviously was underestimated. But it's heavier hockey players as a group that seem to slip a bit in a draft.

First, a little context: Hockey players are generally not heavy, so when a hefty prospect comes along, the sample size for those body types is fairly small. That said, "heavy" in hockey terms isn't really that heavy at all; compared with other sports, the variation in weight is relatively small, with most players hovering around 200 pounds.

So, although Byfuglien was an extreme outlier at 255 pounds, the heaviest 5 percent of prospects are only about 225 pounds and up -- and that 25 pounds makes a huge difference. And if we just look at that top 5 percent, those guys set themselves apart:

It's not as if NHL teams are not valuing big prospects. In fact, prospects heavier than 225 pounds are drafted an entire round ahead of everyone else. But even with this bias, NHL clubs still aren't selecting these guys high enough. More than half of them play 82 NHL games, which helps them outperform their draft slot far more often than their lighter counterparts.

And it's not as though that trend will be reversing any time soon. In the past 10 years, these heavy guys have been selected on average at pick No. 107, while everyone else has been selected on average at No. 127. (In comparison, the numbers for the past 20 years have been No. 95 versus No. 131.)

So, in short, heavy guys are underrated.

But not all of them; after all, five No. 1 overall picks since 1990 have been 225 pounds or heavier -- Joe Thornton, Eric Lindros, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin and Erik Johnson. And 64 first-rounders have been part of the 5 percent club, as well as 42 second-rounders.

However, even when we discount those big early-round guys, the performance gap is still quite evident:

These late-round guys seem to be key. If a prospect is big and talented, he should go in the top two rounds; that's not a surprise. But when Round 3 rolls around, it becomes a bit of a crapshoot -- and these guys can be huge steals.

So here are a few things to keep in mind when drafting big guys in the late rounds:

1. You can find help on both ends.
Since 2000, 67 defensemen and 75 forwards from this group have been drafted. Generally, big late-round forwards don't turn into stars; they become good role players, like Ryane Clowe and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Late-round defensemen seem to be slightly better options; obviously, Zdeno Chara is a prime example, but guys such as Sheldon Souray, Milan Jurcina, Pavel Kubina and Sean O'Donnell also have had productive NHL careers.

2. Be wary of them on draft day.
Not too many guys heavier than 225 pounds will make it past Round 2. In the past 10 years, only 72 have been available in Round 3 and beyond. That's about seven per draft. And, as you'll see in a second, teams stay away from the players who slip for a reason.

3. Don't expect the next Big Buff.
Guys such as Byfuglien and Chara are the exception, not the rule. Big players generally don't become stars. Most of them are tough role players -- e.g., Derek Boogaard, D.J. King -- or solid contributors, like Roman Polak and Jan Hejda. But considering that the large majority of all selections after Round 3 don't even sniff the NHL, drafting the large outlier might be the safer pick.

4. Be patient.
It takes time for these guys to get to the NHL. In the past five drafts, only three late-round big guys have played even a single NHL game. But, from 2001 to '05, 24 of these guys have played in the NHL. That accounts for half of the selected big guys in that time frame.

In this year's NHL Central Scouting Services Midterm Rankings, only four domestic skaters (out of 210) and two international skaters (out of 140) have a listed weight of 225 pounds or more. And the one to keep an eye on is Jamie Oleksiak of Northeastern University. The 6-foot-7, 244-pound blueliner was ranked No. 27 on the CSS Midterms -- the highest-ranking collegian. And although he still has to improve his skating, he should go in the late first or early second round. He is, of course, drawing comparisons to Chara and Tyler Myers, but Gare Joyce writes that Hal Gill might be a better role model for Oleksiak.