The Small Elite

Height has always been coveted in professional sports. The average height of an NHLer is 6’1”. The average height for an MLBer is 6’2”. The average height of an NFLer is 6’2”. And the average height of an NBAer is 6’7”. This is interesting, given the average height of a North American adult male is approximately 5’10” and only ~16% of the adult male population is 6’1” or taller.

Basketball is a game of getting a ball high in the air into a hoop. A large discrepancy in height can be pretty instrumental here (we all saw what happened when the Monstars got big … and talented). In football, there’s a lot of heavy contact and much of the game is about isolating one or two players from the opposition so they don’t get hit. Bigger bodies, with most positions in football, makes a lot of sense. I can see height is a huge asset in those sports.

Baseball and hockey are a bit more of a stretch. In baseball, sure a larger player can field a wider surface area, can hit further, can catch higher but is it that big of a difference if players are equal otherwise (e.g., equal talent level). In hockey, a smaller player is going to get pushed off the puck more. They’re going to have a harder time getting to the dirty areas. But alternatively smaller players tend to be faster and more agile. So there’s a trade off there.

Height is a benefit in hockey but it should be used as a tie breaker between equally talented players and not as the leading deciding factor (like it’s used today). Too often less talented taller players are taken earlier than they should be and very talented smaller players are taken much later than they should be, or not at all.

Professional sports feature the best of the best. Generally the top 0.1% will ever make it to the highest professional level. Hockey is no different. However, height plays a factor here. Given that most of the league is 6’1” or taller but the general population of North America isn’t an equal representation, tallness is a feature being overly focused on.

Again, roughly 16% of the adult male population is 6’1” or taller. Now let’s assume that hockey naturally draws more of taller youngster. Let’s assume 32% (double the national average) of anybody who has played hockey for two or more years in the past 30 years ends up being 6’1” or taller in adulthood.

Over the past 30 years, of all the forwards drafted in the NHL in the first seven rounds, about 57% of them have been 6’1” or bigger (1,947 of 3,444). Nearly four times as many from the overall population and twice the theoretical ‘hockey’ 6’1” group.

Conversely, shorter males (5’10” or shorter) would make up approximately 50% of the overall population. Let’s assume they’re not as greatly represented within youth hockey though. Just like we assume taller boys /men are drawn to hockey, we’ll assume shorter players are discouraged from hockey in a similar proportion. So let’s cut that population in half and assume 25% of the male hockey population grows up to be 5’10” or shorter.

In 30 years, of all forwards drafted in the NHL in the first seven rounds, only 390 NHLers have been drafted at 5’10” or shorter, making up 11% of all forwards drafted. They’re extremely under represented. Well they must be less likely to make the NHL? No … they’re actually more likely to make the NHL than larger players. But there’s a reason for that and it all comes back to sampling.

The Hockey Prospecting model provides Star and NHLer projections for each player included in the database. The Star and NHLer projections are provided at the time the player is drafted and after five years of development. If we take the NHLer probabilities at the time the player is drafted, we see some interesting things.

61% of all players 5’10 or shorter had a 40% or greater chance of turning into an NHLer at the time they were drafted. Conversely, only 40% of 5’11” to 6’1” players had a 40% or greater chance and 40% of players 6’1” or taller. The shorter players being drafted skew heavily towards players that tend to make the NHL. This is why their success rate is the highest of the group. Essentially, only the really, really good smaller players are being taken. Hence they have a better success rate.

Now if a player is going to fit a role in the bottom 6, I can see why a bigger player might be useful. They’re not going to be generating a lot of offense and their ice-time will be limited. So long as they have the chops to be a bottom-6 in the NHL, they might as well be big and take up a lot of space as well. There’s likely a huge quantity of small players that are never even half considered at the draft if they’re not offensive juggernauts, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe many of them wouldn’t make the NHL.

But what about the really good ones. The really good ones that are showing “I have a really good chance at being an NHLer” at the time the draft rolls around. The ones that profile like Steven Stamkos, Joe Thornton and Taylor Hall. Let’s say anybody with a 60% or greater chance of making the NHL at the time they’re drafted.

Here’s some examples of some shorter players that fit those parameters, using the Hockey Prospecting Model …

55 forwards within those parameters are 5’10” or shorter. How many were taken in the first round? 19 (35%). How many were taken in the first two rounds? 30 (55%). Nearly half of those players were still left after two rounds! How many of the 6’1” or taller crowd that fits these parameters is drafted in the first round? 73% and 85% in the first two rounds.

The average probability of an NHL of a forward outside of the top 15, at the time they’re drafted, is 36%. Adding a player that nearly doubles those odds should be heavily considered, even if the player is incredibly small.

Smaller players are being considered more and more in the NHL after being unrepresented for over 30 years at the professional level. This is a good thing. Now teams need to really understand what an elite small forward looks like. Who has real potential to be something special. And these elite smaller players should be moving way up the draft board.

The 2020 draft is extremely deep and features many of these smaller elite players I speak of. But to find out who they all are, you’ll have to subscribe to Hockey Prospecting. Click the button below to get started!

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