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Does Size Matter? On the Caps and Drafting Big

A look at how the Caps have trended in recent drafts vs. the direction the League may be going, and whether it matters

2019 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

After the Washington Capitals drafted 5’11” Connor McMichael with their first pick of the 2019 draft, they used their last three picks on giants: Brett Leason at 6’4”, Aliaksei Protas at 6’5”, and finally Martin Hugo Has at 6’4”. This could certainly be random, but there seems to be enough of a pattern over the last four drafts that there could be some method to the madness when it comes to the Caps drafting big boys.

There’s no doubt that the league is shifting to more speed and skill, which usually ends up being a smaller player, over size and ruggedness. And it’s great to see. The game is a lot more fun when watching Johnny Gudreau skate around with the puck rather than someone like Tanner Glass. But looking at the Capitals last four drafts they certainly seem to be bucking that trend.

The average height in the NHL the last two seasons has been about 6’1”. In the last four drafts, with their 21 picks (not including goalies), the Capitals have selected 12 skaters that are 6’2” or bigger:

Alexei Protas 6’5”
Brett Leason 6’4”
Martin Hugo Has 6’4”
Alexander Alexeyev 6’4”
Tobias Geisser 6’4”
Riley Sutter 6’3”
Martin Fehervary 6’2”
Kody Clark 6’2”
Eric Florchuck 6’2”
Benton Maass 6’2”
Lucas Johansen 6’2”
Beck Malenstyn 6’2”

That doesn’t even include Jonas Siegenthaler who went the year prior and comes in at 6’3”. So over 50% of the Caps’ picks on skaters the last four drafts have been big bodies that are at least an inch taller than the NHL league average. And most likely that 6’1” NHL average will begin to drop a little as more and more smaller players make their way into the league.

Namita Nandakumar

Namita Nandakumar gathered NHL draft information since 2005 up to 2018 (this was created before the 2019 draft so it wasn’t included) and found some interesting results. As it shows, since 2015 there’s been a decline in skaters’ draft size. In the 2018 NHL draft the average forward height was under 6’0” and the average defender was about 6’0.5”. The average height of the big forwards and defenders listed above for the Capitals are both exactly 6’3”. So as the league is getting smaller the Capitals seem to be investing in bigger players.

The good news, and the most important element of these picks, is that these aren’t just big players with nothing else to offer — because it doesn’t matter how big they are, if they are just pylons out there than any player any size can skate right around them. But just about all of the above skaters listed can skate very well (outside of Protas, who has some work to do), and if they aren’t quick they are at the very least average skaters. And a big player that has average skating ability can still cover the same amount of ice with their reach and stride as a smaller player with good speed.

These picks could certainly be random, or maybe the Capitals are looking towards the future. Maybe they’re thinking, “Hey, if everyone else is going for speed and skill in small packages, we’ll go with bigger packages that can match that speed to stop it before it begins.’’ It’s going to be hard for someone like Matthew Barzal to use his skills when a player like Leason is chasing him down from behind and Alexeyev is coming at him from the front. Between their speed, long reach, and physicality, the behemoths that the Capitals have been drafting lately could suffocate a lot of the skill in the NHL.

On their Cup winning run in 2018, the Capitals basically shut down the other teams top producing, smaller players, at least when it came to 5v5:

Columbus Blue Jackets: Artemi Panarin (5’11”) 3 points in 7 games
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby (5’11”) 5 points in 6 games
Tampa Bay Lightning: Nikita Kucherov (5’11”) 2 points in 7 games
Vegas Golden Knights: William Karlsson (6’1”) 1 points in 5 games
11 5v5 points in 25 games

All of this isn’t to say they should go draft only big tough guys; the Don Cherry model is horrendously outdated. But there could be something to drafting bigger guys with speed in order to play a fast and physical style against smaller skilled players and funnel them away from dangerous areas. Their size allows them to get in on the forecheck, win puck battles, cycle, set up screens in front of the net, make the defense look over their shoulders every time they are on ice, etc. — all of which is a must in today’s NHL. If those bigger players don’t have high-end skill to put up the big points they can at least help retrieve and get the puck to the high end skilled players.

The Caps can also inject these bigger players with current smaller players that have a ton of skill like Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Christian Djoos, and hopefully Connor McMichael one day — and of course bigger skilled players like Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, and the small but physical TJ Oshie. The Caps seem to focus on having a nice variety of sizes, skill levels, and speed.

All that being said, going forward, it is probably best if the Capitals had to make a decision between a big kid with less skill than a small kid with more skill, they should go with the smaller one. McMichael was a good start at rebuilding those really skilled players the Capitals need, but with a good foundation of big, fast, reliable players in the system, it’s time to start weaving in some highly skilled players to mix with what the Capitals already possess.