WINNIPEG — Jared Spurgeon plays the little man’s game as well as anyone.
The National Hockey League lists him at 5-foot-9, but of course he is not 5-foot-9. Nobody in pro sports who is listed as small as 5-foot-9 is actually that tall, the same way that for every player listed at 5-11, there are about nine who are said to be six feet.
It just sounds better.
So, how tall is he? Really?
“Uuuh, five-eight-and-a-half? With skates on,” he smiles.
The irony is that, finally, Spurgeon’s stature doesn’t matter anymore. The game is open to small players now. Or as Spurgeon notes, “I think the game’s more skilled.”
The kid who was listed at 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds when Spokane took him in the WHL Bantam Draft now makes nearly $5.2 million annually on a four-year deal as a top pairing defenceman on one of the NHL’s best teams.
Drafted in the sixth round by the Islanders in 2008 (156th overall) — who couldn’t be bothered to sign him — Spurgeon has become one of only 20 NHL players to average more than 24:00 a night this season (24:09).
And he could walk down the street in Toronto or Montreal wearing his Minnesota Wild jersey without being asked for an autograph.
“He is the best defenceman that no one knows about,” declared Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.
“That’s up to you (media) guys,” to spread the word, Boudreau said. “I see him every day, and he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s a very, very good player.
“I’ve had a couple of good ones,” adds the former Capitals and Ducks head coach, “but I don’t know if I’ve been around a defenceman who plays as consistently as he does without being noticed.”
On Tuesday night in Winnipeg Spurgeon used smart positioning and quick hands to deftly clear a puck off of Devan Dubnyk’s goal line that was on its way to becoming a Jets goal. Then he put the lumber on Nikolaj Ehlers, eliminating the opponent who lay prone in the corner while the puck went up ice.
The next night in a 4-3 OT loss to Chicago, he smoothly joined the rush then whistled a wrist shot top shelf past Corey Crawford for his seventh goal and 25th point of the season.
He nightly puts on a clinic at a position where players often do not get noticed until they make a mistake. Thus, Spurgeon’s lack of notoriety.
“Flyin’ under the radar. I like it,” he said. “Me and my buddy Tyler Ennis, we both got cut from our Bantam AAA club back in Edmonton, the Canadian Athletic Club. Didn’t get drafted, told we’re too small. We used it as motivation. You always have it in the back of your head.”
Did you have any idea that Spurgeon, who is 27, is a top-50 points producer among NHL defencemen over the past four seasons (averaging 29 points per season)? Or that the Edmonton native has quietly become the trusted partner of Ryan Suter, the U.S. Olympian who has played more minutes than any other NHL player over that span?
“He’s not your household name, and he plays on a D-corps that’s pretty good. So a lot of the time it’s a collective thing,” said Zach Parise.
He begins the conversation with little enthusiasm, does Parise, as a reporter stocks quotes for a feature on a teammate. But as Parise speaks on Spurgeon, you can see his interest piquing.
“He’s so good on break outs. You think of that little guy, and you’d think he’d get run over by the big guys. But he’s such a good skater,” begins the Wild assistant captain. “He’s so good at retrieving the puck, so when you’re out with him you don’t spend a lot of time in your own zone. Less back checking.”
Now Parise is fully engaged, ticking off a laundry list of Spurgeon superlatives.
“The small things: flat passes he makes in transition that put a guy in a good spot. Giving the forward the chance to carry the puck into the offensive zone, not just blasting it up the wall. He hits you at full speed, then jumps up into the play (and becomes a passing option).”
Now, Parise has run on. He’s surprised himself, finding this many words on the topic.
“He’s an all-around, fantastic player. He really is,” Parise concludes. “The more I talk about him. The more I appreciate what he does.”
Spurgeon, meanwhile, is chilled.
When you’re the smallest player, and you’ve always been the smallest, you quickly figure out that you’d best also be among the smartest. Strong players can outmuscle a mistake. Big players make and receive more room to make plays.
“You always have a chip on your shoulder, and be trying to get better,” he said, deftly turning the topic off of himself and back to the team. “I think that’s what brought us up from not being a Stanley Cup contender the first couple of years, to this year. Everyone has taken a big step here.”
No one more than the little guy you’ve never heard of.