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Team Orr forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks up ice while playing against Team Cherry during second period CHL Top Prospects hockey action in Toronto on January 19, 2011. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Team Orr forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks up ice while playing against Team Cherry during second period CHL Top Prospects hockey action in Toronto on January 19, 2011. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Small (with talent) is the new big at NHL draft Add to ...

The day before the 1987 entry draft, as the NHL introduced its potential first rounders at the annual meet-the-prospects function, a diminutive centre from the Swift Current Broncos named Joe Sakic found himself standing between a pair of behemoth prospects, one on either side, who towered over him.

At that moment, David McNab, then a scout for the Hartford Whalers, dared to dream Sakic might actually fall to No. 18, where the Whalers were drafting. As skilled as he was (and the Burnaby, B.C.-born Sakic was coming off a 133-point WHL season, his first in junior), the prevailing NHL wisdom at the time was that bigger was better. Standing there, in a long line of prospects, the 5-foot-11 centre was positively dwarfed by the likes of Luke Richardson (6 foot 4, 215 pounds) and Brendan Shanahan (6 foot 3, 218). How low could Sakic go?

The answer came the next day: All the way to 15th.

Team after team passed up a player who would eventually become the NHL's eighth-leading scorer of all time for one reason alone: The perception that anyone under six feet couldn't survive or thrive in the NHL.

Among the players chosen ahead of Sakic that year: Wayne McBean, Chris Joseph, Dave Archibald, Bryan Fogerty, Jay More, Yves Racine, Keith Osborne, Dean Chynoweth and Stéphane Quintal. The Quebec Nordiques ultimately landed Sakic, but not before spending their first choice, ninth overall, on Fogerty.

And much, much later in that same draft class, the Calgary Flames took a flyer at 166 in order to draft 5-foot-6 Theo Fleury of the Moose Jaw Warriors, thinking he might top out as a great minor-league pro. Instead, Fleury is No. 56 on the all-time scoring list, and the list of players selected ahead of him too long to enumerate.

So fast forward to the present, and the consensus No. 1 pick in Friday's NHL entry draft is a skinny, if slightly taller, centre, also from Burnaby, who played for the WHL's Red Deer Rebels and grew up idolizing Sakic. That would be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

For that matter, the 2011 equivalent to Fleury, Sakic's great junior rival, is also in this draft - a 5-foot-6 American buzz saw named Rocco Grimaldi, who is projected to go in the second half of the first round, but whose stock is rising fast.

In the postlockout NHL, where hooking, holding and interference have largely been eliminated from the game, small is suddenly okay, provided the skill level is there.

"Minds have opened up to the smaller player," said Craig Button, a former NHL general manager and chief scout who now works as a TSN analyst. "I'll never forget being in a scouting meeting with Bob Clarke once and we were going on about this forward and that forward, and Clarkie would ask, 'How big is he?' We'd say, '5-11.' And Bob would make these scrunching looks with his face, as if he were in the greatest pain ever, and say, 'I don't know.'

"Finally, Dennis Patterson, who still scouts for the Flyers, says: 'It's a good thing you're not in this draft - because we wouldn't be taking you.' And Clarkie knew, Dennis had him dead to rights.

"So all that's changed - and I laugh because in Philadelphia, Claude Giroux and Mike Richards, two really good players for the Flyers now, are both sub-six-footers."

Officially, Nugent-Hopkins is listed at 6 foot 1, 164 pounds, so his frame is slightly different than Sakic's. According to Button, he also shares Sakic's vision, skill and slipperiness, but doesn't shoot the puck as well.

"Everything else is so much like Sakic, except for the shot," Button said. "Joe was able to knife his way into those really dangerous areas where he could either shoot or make a play. Nugent-Hopkins is the same way.

"They know what's going to happen, they see the play unfold, and that's the vision part. Then they have the quickness in their feet and their hands to get to the hard areas and not be deterred. Then they finish it off by making unbelievable plays.

"Everybody said, 'You couldn't touch [Wayne]Gretzky.' Well, you couldn't touch him because you couldn't hit him. It has nothing to do with not trying, you just couldn't do it. In the games I've seen [Nugent-Hopkins]play, I've never seen anybody get a clean piece of him."

The Edmonton Oilers have the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. Even if their greatest needs are for size up front, and depth on defence, the thinking is the Oilers cannot pass up the chance to select Nugent-Hopkins.

But if, for some reason, something changes, then he'll be there at No. 2 for the Colorado Avalanche, a team that - wouldn't you know it? - currently employs Sakic as its executive adviser and alternate governor.

Almost a quarter-century later, that would most assuredly complete the circle. The times, they really have changed.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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