Jared Spurgeon is the smallest defenceman in the NHL.
Listed at five foot nine and 176 pounds, he appears even slighter in person. Despite his size, the 26-year-old Minnesota Wild defenceman has carved out a big role for a playoff team in the Western Conference.
He plays in all situations for the Wild, second only to Ryan Suter in garnering nearly 23 minutes per game. He puts up points (24), scores a few goals (7), kills penalties, blocks shots and boasts positive puck possession numbers. And he’s doing it at a position where size has long been seen as crucial.
Smaller players have increasingly found a place in today’s NHL, but not so much on defence. The average NHL defenceman is six foot one and 206 pounds, far bigger than Spurgeon, the smallest regular in the league in terms of height and weight.
The Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, the Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher, the Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello, forwards all of diminutive stature, have all found success in recent years, thriving in a league where hooking and holding is no longer tolerated. Those like Spurgeon, smallish defenceman who play huge roles on their respective teams, are more of a rarity.
That could be changing for one primary reason.
“If you can skate you can play,” said Suter, Spurgeon’s partner on the Wild’s top pair. “It doesn’t matter what position you’re in I think. He’s a very good skater and he’s a smart player, those two things, you can play.”
Spurgeon appears in motion constantly. Without the bulk to push opponents off pucks, Spurgeon has to be more creative. He uses his stick to poke pucks free, angles himself craftily against larger foes and uses his quick feet to get to pucks first.
“I’ve never been big growing up so I had to learn from an early age,” says Spurgeon.
He also picked up tips as a kid by watching long-time Devils and Red Wings defenceman Brian Rafalski as well as current Rangers defender Dan Boyle, both players on the smaller side.
Spurgeon was a sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders but never came to terms on an entry-level contract. A training camp invite for the Wild in 2010, he quickly signed with the team that fall and recently inked a new four-year deal worth $20.75 million.
The NHL tightened its rules after the 2005-06 lockout, removing the clutching and grabbing that so defined an earlier era. That’s gradually forced those without much mobility from the game while providing an opening for players like Spurgeon.
“You get rewarded for being a good skater,” Suter said, “and that’s exactly what he is.”