For years, Yanni Gourde and players like him have constantly faced questions about whether they were too small to reach the NHL.
After more than 450 games, nearly 300 points, two Stanley Cups and $34.7 million in career earnings, the 5-foot-9 Seattle Kraken forward has a question of his own: Why are we still talking about this obsession people have with height?
“I don’t see why we are still asking this question,” Gourde said. “There are so many people that have proved them wrong. It’s not about the size anymore. It’s about your willingness. It is about being smart. It’s really about a lot of things. It’s about putting your body on the line every single shift and scoring big goals. Those things have nothing to do with height.”
Height is always a talking point in hockey, or any sport. It’s just that the passage of time between the last game of the Stanley Cup Final and the first day of the NHL draft (Round 1 on Wed., 7 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN+) reignites a discussion about height.
What makes this year’s discussion complex is the role height has with both events. Those who argue that height is everything will point out that the Stanley Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights were the fifth-tallest roster in the NHL. Especially when Vegas was able to maximize its collective size over the Florida Panthers, who were the 23rd-tallest team in the league.
“It’s always going to be the preference,” one assistant general manager told ESPN. “It’s why people drool over [Adam] Fantilli [ranked No. 2 in the upcoming draft]. It is the size, the skill and the speed. Whenever you can get that, you are trying to grab that. We are all big teams. But I still think there is a premium on speed and how you can play with that. What these teams are showing a little bit is there is always room for the smaller forward. But there continues to be more of a premium on size from a defensive standpoint.”
Those who suggest that size is a tool and not the toolbox itself also have an argument. They’ll point out that Jonathan Marchessault, who is 5-9, led the Golden Knights in playoff goals, was second in playoff points and won the Conn Smythe Trophy. They’ll also mention how this year’s NHL draft has shown why height is not a deterrent, with the Chicago Blackhawks expected to select Connor Bedard, who is 5-10, with the No. 1 pick in a draft class in which several of the high-end forwards are shorter than 6 feet.
“A good player is a good player,” one GM told ESPN. “Whether they are 5-10 or 6-4. You’d like them to be 6-2 or 6-4. But some of the best players in this league are 5-10 and 5-11. Is size important? Yes, but you have to play the game too. You must get that right mix, and that is the fine line. That is the part you are trying to figure out. The size comes into play when you start tweaking your team. Maybe that next little step is where you add size. Size is important, but skill trumps size.”
JACK HUGHES WAS a point shy of finishing with his first 100-point campaign. His brother, Quinn, was tied for fifth in the regular season in assists. Nikita Kucherov was second in assists and third in points, and Brayden Point was fifth in goals with 51.
They’re all examples of players who are shorter than 6 feet tall who had some of the strongest individual campaigns in the NHL in 2022-23.
“I played the game myself. Good players are good players. Then, when I got into management, you learn they are hard to find,” the GM said. “I know there is this hype about Vegas, but they are good players. Alex Pietrangelo was a top-four pick, and he was also blessed with the size to go with it. But there are a lot of teams that are winning with guys that are 5-10, 5-11 and 6 feet tall. Look at this year’s draft. Connor Bedard has shown size is not an issue.”
Contextualizing what has allowed Bedard to be discussed as a potential generational talent is an exercise that’s been going on for at least two years. The fact he’s 5-10 does get talked about. But it just gets quickly overshadowed by everything else he provides, which is why he has long been viewed as the presumptive No. 1 pick of this year’s draft class.
Since 2000, there have only been four players under 6 feet who have been selected with the first pick. Sidney Crosby was the first, in 2005, followed by Patrick Kane in 2007. Nail Yakupov was the third, in 2012, and Hughes was the fourth when he went first in 2019.
“What you are looking at there is talent. Does the talent continue to escalate?” the assistant GM said. “We talk about Bedard — his release and his shot. But there are a lot of players in this class with impressive puck skills. … These are things that a decade ago was not happening. Now we are seeing everyone has it, and it’s come through with this draft class. With smaller forwards, they don’t have the height, but what are the other elements they do have?
“Is it an elite shot? Elite speed? They are under 6 feet but have a thick physique. What is the element that will help them?”
Bedard is just the first of a few players who fall into this discussion. Forwards Zach Benson, Andrew Cristall, Riley Heidt, Ryan Leonard, Oliver Moore, Bradly Nadeau, Gabe Perreault and Otto Stenberg are all potential first-round picks who are less than 6 feet tall. There are also shorter defensemen who could go in the first round such as Mikhail Gulyayev and Axel Sandin Pellikka.
Even though the conversation about height continues, the numbers show more teams are getting comfortable with having smaller players on their roster. Since the 2009-10 season, there have been more than 175 players per season who are shorter than 6 feet tall who have played at least one NHL game, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
More than half of those players have also played what amounts to at least half a season with their respective teams, according to ESPN Stats & Info research. Between the 2009-10 and the 2016-17 seasons, an average of 185 players less than 6 feet tall played at least one game in the NHL in a season and 112 players played at least half of a season.
But those numbers have increased considerably over the past six years with the introduction of the Golden Knights and Kraken as expansion franchises in addition to the usage of taxi squads during the pandemic.
In that time, there have been an average of 210 players less than 6 feet tall who have played at least one NHL game and an average of 123 players less than 6 feet tall have played at least half of a season.
Of the 951 players who played at least one game during the 2022-23 season, there were 215 who were less than 6 feet tall — meaning 23% of the NHL players who played at least one game were less than 6 feet tall.
Every team in the NHL had at least one player who is less than 6 feet tall on its roster this season. It’s a group that also features Alex DeBrincat, Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov, Torey Krug and Brad Marchand, among others.
“You could even say goaltender. You might say it’s good to have a 6-6 goalie, but look at [Juuse] Saros. He’s 5-10, and he’s doing OK,” the GM pointed out. “That’s the intriguing part. You can say, ‘We need to get bigger.’ But are you going to bypass a Connor Bedard to get bigger? You’re not going to do it. But those conversations do happen when you know you need to add size. That is always the challenging thing at the draft. You gotta be careful. You don’t want to bypass someone with skill when you know you could have had them.”
ANYONE SEEKING MORE insight into how much the landscape has changed for shorter players in recent years just needs to speak with Gourde.
For example, what sort of feedback did he hear from NHL scouts in his draft year?
“Not a single scout talked to me for my draft year,” Gourde said. “I was not supposed to be drafted. … It was never a concern. But it was more down the road when I was at tryouts or on a PTO [professional tryout contract] and we were in talks.”
That is what made watching Martin St. Louis such a valuable experience for Gourde. Watching St. Louis, who is 5-8, work his way from complementary forward to a top-line menace who would eventually be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame let Gourde know he had a chance.
Seeing that a shorter player could find success was the foundation. Then, it was about trying to figure out how Gourde could create a blueprint that would work for him. He shared how some of the concerns about his size were that he would get outmuscled in the corners or would get boxed out at the net front while failing to win puck battles against larger players.
In 2022-23, IcyData’s metrics show that 43% of Gourde’s goals came at the net front — while the league average for a player was 25%. Meanwhile, 20% of his shots were also at the net front, which was 3 percentage points higher than the league average.
“It’s details. Trying your best to get the inside position as soon as possible,” Gourde said. “At least you will have control of the puck. Being lower on your feet, lower with your center of gravity and being lower on the puck makes it harder for the other team to move you. Those are all little details you have to practice. You have to go out there and do it, and those are some things you learn over the years.”
The assistant GM who spoke with ESPN offered insight into how players such as Gourde and Marchessault are examples of what makes talent evaluation challenging. He said seeing players at their size is why it is important to keep an open mind.
But because evaluating talent can be complex, it’s also why executives must tread carefully when it comes to how they assess smaller players.
“It was the same thing with Nick Bonino in Pittsburgh back in the day,” the assistant GM said. “I can tell you and show you 100 people who skate like Bonino who play in the ECHL. I can show you players with similar production [in major junior] to Marchessault who are in the ECHL or they are in Europe. Guys like Gourde and Marchessault have defied the odds. You have to keep an open mind. If they have the drive and work ethic, you keep them in your organization.
“At the end of the day, we are all trying to play the odds and produce NHL players.”