Smaller players reaching new heights in modern-day hockey

The first time Anthony Louis stepped on the ice for a Blackhawks prospect camp four summers ago, he was 5-7 and weighed just 145 pounds. It looked like some kid had snagged a jersey and darted onto the ice to play with the real prospects — until Louis started flying up ice and making nifty moves around the big guys.

At that size, Louis stuck out. At least he did when you could see him among the trees.

“My first year, I was the only small guy,” said Louis, a winger out of Winfield. “It’s not like that anymore.”

As the NHL gets faster and faster, it’s also getting smaller and smaller. Size is still valuable, but speed and skill matter more. Four of the last five Stanley Cup champions — the Hawks in 2013 and 2015, and the Penguins in 2016 and 2017 — have prioritized speed over size. The hulking Kings might have been the last of a dying breed, as a more open style of play with less clutching and grabbing has ushered in a new style of hockey that’s more friendly to the little guy.

Winfield native Anthony Louis is in his fifth prospect camp for the Blackhawks. (Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times)

And there are little guys all over the ice this week at Johnny’s IceHouse West. Louis now is listed at a whopping 5-8, 158 pounds. The top prospect in the organization is 5-7 Alex DeBrincat. The Hawks’ fourth-round pick in last month’s draft was Tim Soderlund, who is generously listed as 5-9. And 5-8 Will Pelletier came out of nowhere to earn a spot with the IceHogs last season, posting seven points in eight games.

As Patrick Kane, Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen, among others, have proved in recent seasons, size isn’t everything in the modern-day NHL.

“It’s a big part of the game changing these days,” said Louis, who turned pro this past spring and will start the season in Rockford. “It’s a lot faster and quicker, and us smaller guys can get away with doing a little bit more — using our speed instead of having to play the body all the time. It’s a more skilled game, and it’s much better.”

Soderlund grew up watching Predators standout Viktor Arvidsson (5-9) play for his hometown team in Skelleftea, Sweden. Arvidsson’s breakout 31-goal season was further proof that little guys can come up big in the NHL.

But Soderlund was wary of labeling himself the next Arvidsson. They play a different game — the defensive-minded Soderlund is more Marcus Kruger than Kane — and smaller guys can do more than just score.

“I’m trying to play like Tim, myself,” Soderlund said. “Play hard and not give up just because they are bigger than me.”

Soderlund has been playing against older players all his life, so the size disadvantage is nothing new to him. But he thinks he can be even more effective on the smaller North American ice surface, which usually fosters a more up-and-down style of play than the wider European rinks.

“I try to use my speed and drive to the net, because when I’m moving fast, I am hard to find,” Soderlund said.

The ridiculously productive DeBrincat (65 goals in 63 games last season) is the quintessential example of a player not letting his lack of size hurt his game. Sure, he’s not going to be all that vicious on the forecheck, but a nose for the net and an ability to find open space in the offensive zone are every bit as valuable. And if you’re the first one to get into the corner and get the puck, you don’t need to forecheck, anyway.

After all, smarts, speed and skill can add up to more than simple size.

“It’s not an advantage or anything — when we go into the corner and go one-on-one with a 6-2, 220 guy, it’s hard to get the puck,” Pelletier said. “But hockey is more about speed and quickness now. It’s less physical and more about speed. It’s way better. And when you see guys like Kane or Johnny Gaudreau, that they can make it to the NHL, it’s a boost for all us small guys. We can do it, too.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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