May 20, 2015 - 8:30 AM
NEW YORK, N.Y. - The Stanley Cup playoffs can be a roller-coaster ride with climbs and drops, unpredictable twists and turns. But there's no sign that reads: "You must be this tall to ride."
If that existed, there'd be no room for Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning or Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. Johnson is favourably listed at five foot eight and Gaudreau at five foot nine, yet they've been larger than life in this post-season.
Johnson, Gaudreau and even sub-six-foot players like Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Sami Vatanen of the Anaheim Ducks, Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens and Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers are proving that the playoffs can be a small guy's game.
"You don't have to be 6-4. You don't have to be Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf," NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said. "Talent comes in all sizes now."
With all due respect to Randy Newman, short people have plenty of reasons to live and thrive in hockey today. Stricter enforcement of penalties after the 2004-05 lockout brought more speed to the game and opened the ice for more little guys than back when Theo Fleury broke the mould.
In 2010, 5-8 Danny Briere, then of the Philadelphia Flyers, led the playoffs in scoring. In 2011, 5-8 Martin St. Louis and 5-9 Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins were among the leaders.
Three of the playoffs' top five scorers in these playoffs are under six feet: Johnson, Kane and Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov.
"The one thing about smaller guys, bigger players always have to play themselves off teams," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Smaller players always have to play themselves on teams. As a smaller player, I believe you have to set yourself apart in some aspect. You have to be better than everybody else."
Johnson has been precisely that with a playoff-best 11 goals and 16 points. Gaudreau led the Flames in playoff scoring to cap off an impressive rookie season.
Size isn't on Johnson's mind, nor is being passed over in three different NHL drafts when 632 other players got picked. But the 24-year-old recognizes hockey's changing landscape.
"It's just one of those things that the smaller guys, even Marty St. Louis, kind of opened doors for the smaller guys to get into the league," Johnson said. "You see guys growing up that have the size and kind of the pedigree and everything. A lot of those guys aren't playing anymore. I just always had to work hard."
Asked last round what stood out about Johnson, Tampa Bay teammate Jason Garrison quipped: "Other than he's short?" When he stopped smiling he explained that while Johnson may be short in stature, he's long on work ethic.
But Johnson and Gaudreau didn't get to NHL stardom just from the chip on their shoulders about their height or even long hours on the ice. They're superbly talented, too, and that's in display in the playoff spotlight.
"You look at a Gaudreau, his hockey sense is off the charts, better than most. That's why he survives," Cooper said. "Tyler Johnson, his speed, his competitiveness. That's what sets these guys apart."
Campbell is proud of how much value is on speed and skill nowadays with coaches, general managers and scouts saying, "If you can't skate, you can't play." That's even true in the playoffs, where the physicality ramps up and defences clamp down.
Johnson and Gaudreau are good enough skaters to avoid a lot of contact, and Gallagher is right at home in traffic. Johnson, for one, said he'd rather play against big opponents than fast ones because his speed makes a bigger difference.
That's not always possible in the faster NHL.
"It's obviously a faster game now, throughout the regular season and throughout the playoffs you can definitely feel how the pace has picked up over the last three or four years," Hagelin said. "It's all about mobility and being able to skate."
News from © Canadian Press, 2015