Smaller players can have big value in the modern-day NHL

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Despite all his offensive gifts — his pure skill, his otherworldly hands, his remarkable vision —Patrick Kane isn’t sure he’d even be a professional hockey player had he been born in the 1970s instead of the 1980s. Not at 5-11. Not at 177 pounds.

“In the early 2000s, or the late-90s, it seemed like it was a bigger man’s game, and it would be tough for guys our size to end up even making the NHL,” Kane said. “But I think with the rule changes, and the way the game has changed as far as what you can do defensively, I think smaller guys are able to get away with a little bit more, and are able to be a little bit more productive.”

A little bit, yeah.

While the Anaheim Ducks boast one of the most physically imposing rosters in the league, including a gargantuan top line that averages 6-3, 221 pounds, the NHL has become a small-man’s league. Kane is second among playoff scorers with seven goals and six assists in 10 games. Tampa Bay’s 5-7 dynamo Tyler Johnson is third with eight goals and four assists in 13 games, just one point ahead of 5-11 teammate Nikita Kucherov. Minnesota’s Zach Parise (5-11) is next, and Calgary’s diminutive Johnny Gadreau (5-9, 150 pounds) had nine points in 11 games.

The changes that came out of the 2004-05 lockout were designed to open up the game and kill the neutral-zone trap that slowed the game to a crawl in the 1990s and early 2000s. The red line was eliminated, opening up the two-line stretch pass that the Hawks have since mastered, and the league cracked down (for the umpteenth time) on obstruction and the clutching-and-grabbing that made teams such as the New Jersey Devils so effective.

Without a mass of humanity to muscle their way through in the neutral zone, smaller, faster players suddenly had a chance again. And now they’re often making the big guys look silly.

“It’s all about speed,” said Teuvo Teravainen, who’s listed at the same height and one pound heavier than Kane. “And usually smaller guys are faster. Especially in the playoffs, the game is really, really fast, and you have to be in really great physical shape.”

The game has changed so much that Hawks general manager Stan Bowman is stockpiling smaller players. Sure, if a big, strong and fast player like Marian Hossa or Brandon Saad comes along, the Hawks would jump at the chance to draft or sign him. But it’s hardly a requirement. In addition to Kane and Teravainen, Bowman signed Russian forward Artemi Panarin, another highly skilled 5-11, 170-pounder, who’s expected to play a key role right away next season. Veteran Andrew Shaw, prospect Ryan Hartman and college signee Tanner Kero are also all listed at the magic height of 5-11.

“You never shy away from talent,” Bowman told the Sun-Times. “I think size and talent is great. But size alone is not the answer. We’ve seen that more than ever with the modern game here in the last few years. It’s never been more friendly for a smaller player to play because it’s really a skill game now. If you have size in addition to that, that’s great. We like big players, too. We don’t have an aversion to that at all. Anaheim does it really well with the players they have. But there’s not one way to win.”

Kane’s not sure if he’ll see much of the Ducks’ hulking top line of Patrick Maroon, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who dominated Winnipeg and Calgary in the first two rounds. But he’s not going to change his game if he does.

These days, he doesn’t have to.

“It’s good for the game,” Kane said. “There are still obviously a lot of dominant players that are big and strong, like the Perrys and Getzlafs of the world. But when you’re on the ice, especially for me, I don’t tend to think about my size, if I’m bigger or smaller than a guy. … If I go in and try to change my game completely against a bigger team, it’s just going to end up working out [poorly] for me.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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