Undersized NHL prospects face uphill, yet conquerable battle

Spencer Foo lead the way as the Calgary Flames beat the Vancouver Canucks in rookie tournament action.

PENTICTON, B.C. — There wasn’t only a time when a National Hockey League general manager would never have considered drafting a Kailer Yamamoto, Matthew Phillips or Skyler McKenzie, but it was even worse than that. Any scout who suggested the possibility might be looking for work.

“If you brought a kid that size to camp, you’d better have your resume ready,” one scout said Monday. “It would be, ‘Who brought this kid?’ And every scout would say, ‘Not me!’”

Yamamoto is five-foot-eight and 155 pounds. He was drafted 22nd overall by Edmonton last spring.

The Winnipeg Jets spent a seventh-round pick on McKenzie, an 84-point WHLer who is listed as the same size as Yamamoto. Calgary spent a sixth-rounder on pint-sized Matthew Phillips, who goes at five-foot-six, 141 pounds.

Ten years ago, “We wouldn’t even have considered it,” said Flames vice president of hockey operations Don Maloney, a former GM of the Year who has run teams in Arizona and New York (Islanders).

“It’s partly the rule change, the speed of the game… and Phillips may be diminutive, but his skill and compete level, his skating, is excellent,” Maloney said prior to the Flames’ final game at the Penticton Young Stars tournament. “He’s an accomplished player in junior. We’ve got to give him a chance at the next level. Yamamoto is 155 pounds soaking wet, but talk about dynamic, quickness and hockey sense. There is room for those players now.”

Maloney’s Flames slumbered through their final game here at the Young Stars Rookie Tournament, losing 4-1 to the Jets while being outshot 35-10. Both teams finished the annual tourney at 1-2.

While former Flame Theoren Fleury was once the template against which every tiny player was judged, today that player is Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau. On the sliding scale that exists between size and skill, Gaudreau is very small yet mega-skilled.

As for Yamamoto, “He might even be smaller than Gaudreau,” said Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli. “But his speed testing was the best on this team in a while.”

One thing Chiarelli knows: Small and “perimeter players” don’t work for him. They have to be able to get the puck by themselves, not just wait for others to do the dirty work. Another of Chiarelli’s tenets: He can house a small player or (maybe) two on his roster, but the team has to have enough size elsewhere to afford that option.

“Yes, it does,” he said. “For me, when you look at a small player, with Kailer, he’s a sturdy player. He’s an aggressive player who uses the body. He’s not a peripheral player. That has to enter the equation, if these (smaller players) are to succeed.”

What changed to allow teams to dabble in the diminutive?

“The rule changes,” said Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke, a guy who never would have drafted small when he was building “truculent” teams in Anaheim and Toronto. “Eliminating the (obstruction) has given the small player some room now, and they’ve eliminated some of the big hits that we wanted out of the game. They’ve cut fighting back substantially, and they’re not the liability they once were.”

“The evolution,” Chiarelli agreed, “has allowed us to open our eyes to these kind of players.”

At this rookie tournament, Yamamoto has been a cut above his peers, as a No. 22-overall pick should be. He’s quick, makes plays, and much happens when he’s on the ice. McKenzie and Phillips were less impressive, according to scouts we canvassed, but the journey has only begun.

There are certain things that these bantamweights will have bring to the table if they are to make the next step. Some are non-negotiable.

“When their skating is average, they have no chance,” Maloney said. “And their instincts for the game have to be not good, but to an elite level for the smaller player to advance. You have to have elite hockey sense.

“In the NHL, everyone can skate. That’ll be Phillips’ big challenge: Can he be effective when everyone is big and strong, and can skate close to the way he can skate?”

“You have to be an elite skater, or be elite elusiveness-wise,” Burke agreed. “You’ve got to have elite puck-handling skills. You don’t necessarily have to have breakaway speed, but you’d better have elusiveness if you don’t.”

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