a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Friday, 3 June 2011

06/03/11 32.0 A Note on Small(ish) Centers

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Today marked the end of the annual NHL combine, which puts around 100 of the game's top prospects through some of the most gruelling torture-tests you can imagine. As expected, the young man pictured above did well in the interview portion, but he also managed to put some of the criticisms about his size to bed.

From those who attended the combine, the word is that Nugent-Hopkins was about middle of the pack in today's fitness testing. At first glance that's not an encouraging performace from a player that is projected to go first overall; but when you factor in the fact that he's also one of the slightest, it's quite impressive. The Nuge bench pressed 150 pounds 6 times, which is 4 more reps than Jonathon Huberdeau and 7 less than the leader, Mark McNeill.

Nugent-Hopkins joked that "bench pressing doesn't score goals," and he's right about that. In the end, the combine is a way of breaking ties between players. If two players are ranked exactly the same and there is no appreciable difference between them, then the interviews and fitness testing could help determine which player a team picks. But the tests and interviews don't judge a player's overall hockey IQ, which is how the first overall pick must be chosen. When it comes to that category, few in this draft can even be mentioned with Nugent-Hopkins. His middling performance in the fitness testing only shows that he is physically capable of keeping up, in spite of his slight build.

It's been beaten to death at this point, but hockey sense is more important than how much a player can lift or how many pushups one can do when selecting first overall. Players that go first overall have something in them that others do not, and that's a head for the game and a drive to improve as much as they can. Nugent-Hopkins has those things. Even if he doesn't ever get to be 200 pounds, it will probably not change how effective he can be in the NHL.

Joe Sakic
 Burnaby Joe Sakic (interestingly, the same birthplace of RNH) played at less than six feet in his NHL career. He's only 5'11" and 195 pounds now, so one can imagine how much smaller he was as an 18 year old. That didn't stop him from being one of the most dominant centers in history. Sakic racked up 1641 points in 1378 NHL games. Granted, part of that came in a different era for the league, but he still managed to score 100 points in 2006-07 as a 37 year old. He also didn't jump directly into the NHL. He played a second season for Swift Current in the WHL and scored 78-82-160 in just 68 games. The following year he was ready for the big show.

Steve Yzerman
 Another BC native, Steve Yzerman is only 5'11" and 185 pounds. He's probably a pretty close physical comparison for Nugent-Hopkins. As RNH continues to grow, he'll probably end up in the 180-190 pound range when he reaches the NHL. We all know the book on Yzerman: 1755 points in 1514 games, all while being much smaller than most of his contemporaries. When Detroit selected Yzerman 4th overall in 1983, he weighed just 160 pounds.

The Great One
 Wayne Gretzky weighed 160 pounds and stood at 6 feet as an NHL rookie. Many said that he was "too small, too wiry, and too slow to be a force in the NHL," but that he had incredible on-ice vision and eyes in the back of his head. Almost the same words were used by Duncan Siemens to describe Nugent-Hopkins:

"Just when you think you have him, he looks out another eye in his head and sees another play that you couldn't see, and boom, the pass goes tape-to-tape to another player, and it's a great play that sets up another chance."


No one is suggesting that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the next Sakic, Yzerman or Gretzky, but to suggest that he won't make an impact because of his size is probably fallacious. Back in the old clutch-and-grab era of the NHL, these three players were able to be lethal despite their sizes because of their high hockey IQ. Now, in an age where it's easier for small players than ever before, size is even less of a factor in determining the success or failure of a player.

This blog has suggested that the Oilers should take Sean Couturier first overall because of his size and faceoff ability (assuming that the scoring ability is the same among top prospects). That's because the Oilers are mostly composed of smallish players, and an entire team can't be small. But if Nugent-Hopkins has the superior hockey sense that scouts are talking about, the Oilers have to take him. The rest of the small Oilers forwards can be changed.

After all, the team would be built around him.

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