A refrain that is often heard in the hockey world is that the game has changed.
But, aside from some tinkering here and there, the rules haven’t changed substantially in almost a century.
It’s not the game that has changed. It’s the people that have changed. More specifically it’s the attitudes that people have about the game that have changed.
The point of the game always has been to put more pucks in the net than the other team. It doesn’t matter how you do it. What makes hockey such a great game is that there are a number of different ways you can attempt to outscore your opponent. You can try to beat them with speed and offense. You can try to out-defend them. You can focus on dominating special teams. You can try to intimidate and wear your opponent down physically. Ideally you want to do a combination of everything well.
What we’re seeing in the NHL right now is a game where offensively skilled players are highly sought after. Particularly ones who can skate well and control the puck.
We’re also seeing a league where teams aren’t afraid to dress smaller players on a regular basis after years where it seemed anyone under 6’0 tall was considered a long shot to make it.
There is a perception that we have a style of play in the league today that allows smaller players to thrive where they couldn’t have in past decades. But smaller players could always play in the league. They just often weren’t given the chance because people had biases about size.
Skating, puck handling and offensive skill were always important factors to winning. This isn’t a new thing. However teams in previous eras had a bias towards size that just didn’t make a lot of sense.
And, to be clear, that’s not to say smaller players are generally any faster or more offensively skilled than a taller player. Because that is a bias within itself. Skills such as skating and scoring don’t generally correlate with a players height. But in decades past we had a situation where teams would often dress a bigger player over a smaller more skilled player just because of an unjustified desire to have a taller player in the lineup.
But ten to twenty years ago, when NHL general managers valued a players height to an inappropriately high degree, shorter players were still often some of the best performers. Looking back over the couple decades prior to the current era, the NHL’s top ten scoring list regularly featured plenty of players under 6’0 tall. Think names such as; Fleury, Oates, Hull, Mogilny, Gilmour, Bure, Naslund, Sakic, Yzerman, Recchi, Kariya, Gagne, Alfredsson, Savard, St. Louis, Palffy, Briere, Gomez, Sullivan, Weight and Datsyuk.
The difference is, in those days, those players were considered the exception to the rule. They were considered the players who succeeded despite their small stature. But that just isn’t necessarily true. If you look at the numbers you might be surprised to find that after being drafted players made the NHL at virtually the same rate no matter what their height. The myth that a tall player had a better chance at making the NHL than a shorter player isn’t necessarily proven by the facts. If anything a lot of the biggest draft steals were shorter players while a lot of the worst busts were taller ones.
Large size and positive results never did correlate to success as much as people thought. Once teams started figuring out that you need the best players, not the biggest, those teams started winning.
There are other size biases we’ve seen over the years. One that gets repeated often is that big players take longer to develop. They don’t take longer to develop- they were given longer to develop. A big player was often irrationally given chance after chance to succeed where a smaller player would have been buried in the minors long before.
Another one is that smaller players are more prone to injury and to suffering from the wear and tear of a long season. This is something that still gets repeated but who knows why? Has any piece of evidence ever been presented to suggest that smaller players are more prone to injury than larger players? Being large men didn’t seem to help Eric Lindros or Mario Lemeiux avoid the infirmary.
And of course any time a smaller player failed to make the NHL, invariably the reason given is that he was “too small”. No one seems to consider that maybe he just simply wasn’t good enough. But when a huge player like Jason Bonsignore or Hugh Jessiman busts does anyone say they were “too big”?
One of the big advantages that we’ve seen with advanced stats is that the hard numbers help to eliminate some of these biases that existed. But there are still biases that exist in today’s game. There always will be. And the teams that figure out what those biases are, and exploits them, will usually be a team that has success and then becomes emulated.
While teams in the past overvalued size we’ve now seen the pendulum swing in the other direction. And sometimes the pendulum can swing too far the other way. Teams now might now be overvaluing offensive skill and undervaluing the impact of physical play. If you think a big, physical team couldn’t succeed in today’s NHL remember- the game never really changes that much. It’s people’s attitudes about the game that change.