Hockey glorifies size. It’s understandable, considering how physicality is an undeniably important aspect of the game. You need big defencemen to clear out the front of the net and big forwards who can prevent themselves from being cleared. You want players with enough size to deliver punishing body checks to create turnovers and make opponents panic with the puck. You need players who can use their body effectively to protect the puck.
Size is frequently overemphasized, however. Reading draft previews, a prospect’s bio will quote scouts going on and on about his big frame, then add in at the end ”And he can skate!” as if that’s a bonus rather than a requirement. Undersized forwards and defencemen struggle to get noticed in the minors, as less talented, but bigger-bodied teammates get called up long before they do.
That’s one of the reasons why this Stanley Cup Final match-up is so interesting to me. Despite one team’s reputation, these are actually two of the smallest teams in the NHL, showing that size doesn’t matter nearly as much as some would suggest.
Anyone who will tell you that this Final is a battle of size versus skill is ignoring two important facts. First, it turns out the big, bad Bruins are not actually all that big, though calling them the bad Bruins doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. And second, the Bruins have plenty of skill.
As Cam Charron pointed out earlier this week, the Bruins are far more talented than they are big and, according to James Mirtle’s tally from January, are 21st in the NHL in average height and 26th in average weight. The Chicago Blackhawks are similar, if slightly reversed: they were 29th in average height and 20th in average weight.
Certainly, the Bruins have Zdeno Chara, the 6’9″ behemoth who can play half the game and cover the entire defensive zone with his reach while standing still, and Milan Lucic, the bruising power forward who seems nigh-impossible to budge from the front of the net. These two massive players certainly set the tone for the Bruins and are joined by Adam McQuaid, Nathan Horton, and Johnny Boychuk, all players with above average size.
Really, then it’s even more remarkable when you consider Chara and Lucic, as even with them skewing the Bruins’ numbers, they were still below average in height and weight at the start of the season. And, while they added another big, talented body in Jaromir Jagr before the playoffs, they also called up rookie Torey Krug, who is generously listed at 5’9″.
Meanwhile, the player leading the team and the playoffs in scoring is David Krejci, who is 6’0″ and 188 lbs. One of their top offensive players is Brad Marchand — 5’9″, 183 lbs. Their vaunted fourth line has just one player of above average size, Shawn Thornton, and he’s the least important player on that line. Chara leads the team in ice time, but behind him is Dennis Seidenberg, who is thoroughly average at 6’1″ and 210 lbs.
The Blackhawks’ tallest player is Michael Handzus, who is still four inches shorter than Chara, and they also boast Bryan Bickell, Brent Seabrook, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson among their big bodies. For the most part, they’re average in size. Their leading scorer is Marian Hossa, who comes in at the same height and weight as Seidenberg. Then comes Patrick Kane at 5’11″ and 181 lbs. Leading the Blackhawks in ice time is Duncan Keith, who is known far more for his skating and skill than his size. He’s 6’1″ and 200 lbs.
Sparkplug Andrew Shaw, who seemed to spend much of Game 1 viciously battling with Chara’s thighs, is optimistically listed as 5’10″ and 180 lbs. That didn’t stop him from delivering some of the biggest hits of the game and it hasn’t kept him from scoring 9 points in 18 playoff games this year, including the game winner in overtime, which deflected off his undersized body as he went hard to the net.
It’s not unusual to think of the Blackhawks as undersized, of course, as they’re supposed to be the team built on speed and skill. As Game 1 illustrated, however, both teams have plenty of both. Chara and Lucic may cast a large shadow over the Bruins, but they’re balanced out by a number of smaller, skilled players. Calling them the balanced, bad Bruins doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Sure, the Bruins are a very tough, and some might say nasty, team, but that’s not built on size. That’s built on team philosophy, which has dictated the type of players they target and the style of coaching they receive. The Bruins seem to have focussed on acquiring tough players without sacrificing skill, with size far down the list of priorities. Brad Marchand is small, but he’s also tough as nails and, at times, dirtier than his playoff beard. Meanwhile, the big players on their team don’t just have size; they’re also talented.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, don’t have the same team philosophy as the Bruins, but are certainly still tough, whether you want talk about Marian Hossa winning battles along the boards and protecting the puck or Andrew Shaw running over a defenceman on the forecheck or Duncan Keith delivering the occasional retaliatory cheap shot.
Neither the Blackhawks nor the Bruins are actually built on size. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, however, that seemed to be the lesson learned by the rest of the league — they needed to get bigger and tougher — rather than seeing that the Bruins won the Cup thanks to a Vezina-calibre goaltender, a Norris-calibre defenceman, a Selke-calibre centre, and a well-constructed team full of talented, two-way forwards.
The former is an easier lesson to learn, as there are plenty of big, tough hockey players in the world, but not many Tim Thomases, Zdeno Charas, Patrice Bergerons, and Brad Marchands.
For both the Bruins and the Blackhawks, it’s not about being bigger; it’s about being better.