Saturday, 9 July 2011

The need for size at centre in the NHL

It’s the stuff hockey wet dreams are made of, the big skilled tough centre who will lead the team to the promised land. He wears the captain's 'C' on his chest and feeds deadly snipers on his wings a steady diet of soft saucer passes in the other team's slot. He wins faceoffs, is responsible in his zone and can drop the gloves and give an opponent an attitude adjustment.

We Canadiens fans have been whining of our need for a “gros joueur de centre” since the late 70′s, even while we were winning Cups. We had Peter Mahovlich, all 6'5" of him, but he wasn’t physical enough we said, and when he started to stickhandle he’d stop skating and lose the puck. We eventually traded him away, but that's another story.

It was such a big problem that we passed over magical Denis Savard for Doug Wickenheiser in the 1980 draft. Denis Savard had grown up and played junior hockey in the Canadiens backyard, in Verdun. Instead of drafting the hometown favourite, the Canadiens instead drafted Mr. Wickenheiser, himself a phenom out of Regina who had scored 89 goals the previous season. What cinched it was that Mr. Wickenheiser, at 6'1", was three inches taller than Mr. Savard. I remember as a kid reading in La Presse how Le Professeur Ronald Caron crowed about this selection and said Mr. Wickenheiser would soon centre Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt for years.

It didn't turn out that way. While Mr. Savard was a perennial All-Star and possibly the most spectacular player in the NHL for a time, Mr. Wickenheiser played three uninspired seasons in Montreal, and was traded partway through the fourth, a denouement welcome by all parties.

We have had the big centre in Montreal occasionally but then we’d not appreciate them as much as they deserved. I think of Bobby Smith, who didn’t score enough we said, and Pierre Turgeon, who should have been more of a scrapper with his size we thought. His skill set was not enough, we wanted him mucking in the corners with Basil McRae and Dwight Foster.

The obsession with size doesn’t stop with centres though, and it’s not just the Canadiens. Nobody ever brags about how they just drafted a great small winger. Nobody trades for a small defenceman because he’s small. If you have an underperforming tall goaltender and an overachieving small goaltender, who do you keep?

I was looking at the 1987 draft last night, because that’s what I do on Friday nights, and again saw how Theoren Fleury lasted until the 8th round, the 166th pick, two picks after the Canadiens drafted Will Geist. He was coming off a season in the Western Hockey League during which he scored 61 goals, and 43 the previous one. Obviously production wasn’t a problem. If he had been 6’1″ 195 lbs he would have been drafted early in the first round. If he had been 6’4″ 225 lbs he would have bumped Pierre Turgeon for first overall.

Obviously the way the NHL is constituted now, how the game is played, and seeing how the Canucks were mugged of the Cup by the Bruins and the Head Office in New York, size will continue to be a deciding factor in how players are drafted and developed. Guys like Etienne Brodeur and Martin St-Louis will continue to go undrafted despite their production.

Another basic element though is what we as human beings feel when confronted with people of large size. It brings us back to when we were kids and had to crane our necks to look up to our cousin who was over six feet tall, even taller than dad, or that neighbour down the street who is a policeman who plays rugby and is so big he almost can’t fit in his Jetta. Large men catch our eye, and when a scout or GM sees a player of size, he will favour that player over the smaller one who is probably a little better. It’s a visceral reaction that is hard to ignore, and we’ll keep ascribing a disproportional value to it.

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