There was a time when they were routinely called The Smurfs.
And, truth be told, these Montreal Canadiens aren’t a whole lot different than those of four or five years ago when it comes to sheer size.
It’s no great revelation to anyone that’s watched them this postseason that the Habs are the shortest team that made the second round, measuring in on average at a full inch shorter than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Minus Doug Murray and Travis Moen, who aren’t expected to play in Game 7, the average height of the Canadiens forwards and defencemen is a little more than 5-foot-11. Their average weight is just under 199 pounds, exactly five pounds below what the league average was during the regular season.
That hasn’t mattered in their series with the Boston Bruins.
In fact, embracing being a smaller, skilled team has given coach Michel Therrien a better lineup, with the insertion of rookie d-man Nathan Beaulieu and vet Daniel Briere over Murray and Moen was one contributor to an impressive and convincing Game 6 win two nights ago.
Montreal has simply controlled the play better with its best skating team in the lineup, not its biggest.
*– minus Murray and Moen
The reality is, size has become a fetish for some general managers, coaches and media in this league, a cure-all answer for any team that struggles in its own end or along the boards. It’s an overvalued commodity, especially when the teams that are winning are generally doing so with speed and finesse and not brawn.
Compared to the Dead Puck Era that ended in 2004, we’re also seeing far more small defencemen getting a chance, in large part because moving the puck while carrying it has become more effective strategy than a simple dump and chase (which resulted as a response to trying to avoid an obstructed path up the ice).
To that point, more than 15 per cent of the blueliners that played a game in the NHL this season were listed at under six feet, or an average of 1.5 per team.
A decade ago, despite the fact the trend in many pro sports (and North America in general) is larger and larger bodies, that was just 7.6 per cent, or less than one per club.
You don’t have to be big to win anymore. The Chicago Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups in the last four years and are in the final four for the third time in five years, and their skaters in these playoffs average an unimposing 6-foot-1 and 199 pounds.
Coach Joel Quenneville hasn’t been afraid to use a lot of players in the 190 range and under, either.
In fact, there was a negative correlation between average team height and points in the standings this year, with a whole pile of tall teams missing the playoffs altogether (Winnipeg, Toronto, Phoenix, Ottawa, Florida, Buffalo and Washington were all in the top 10 to start the year).
Average team weight appears to matter quite a bit more, but even then, successful teams like Pittsburgh, the Rangers, Habs and Wild are all under average when they step on the scale.
What’s happened in hockey the last decade has been a tremendous positive from the perspective of rewarding speed and skill. The hockey is better, and there are more opportunities for players to succeed on merit as opposed to basing it on their shoe size.
If you have talent, being a Smurf really isn’t a problem.
Percentage of NHL defencemen under six feet tall
The trend to smaller, skilled teams is evident in a lot of ways in the NHL, but where you see it more than anywhere is on the blueline. More and more teams are realizing that bigger isn't necessarily better at a position that requires great speed, dexterity and hand-eye coordination.