Spector on NHL: Not much room for the little guy

The Vancouver Canucks prepare to leave the ice after a loss to the San Jose Sharks during overtime of Game 4.

When they reset the game coming out of the lockout of 2004-05, the National Hockey League welcomed back the little guy.

The largely European Vancouver Canucks would win six of the next eight Northwest pennants, folks in Edmonton dusted off that old “Oilers Hockey” slogan, and overall scoring went up.

Well it’s now the spring 2013. Canucks GM Mike Gillis is talking about “a reset”, while Craig MacTavish is scouring the league for more beef.

And who’s still playing hockey?

As always, the big, heavy rosters that were winning before the lockout, and are still winning today.

As an old scout once said, “Son, big and good beats small and good every time.”

“No,” corrected Ken Hitchcock, the St. Louis Blues head coach. “Big and quick is better than small and quick. Big players are irrelevant in today’s game if you can’t skate.”

A lot of people thought the new rules would open the game up again to the small skilled player, and to an extent it has. Unforeseen, however, was the ability of the larger bodies like L.A.’s Dwight King or Brian Boyle in New York to get up to speed.

Couple that with crushing defensive systems, and we’re back to the same 2-1 playoff hockey — most nights — that led the NHL to remake its game back in 2005.

Combined scoring fell below 4.00 in the average playoff game in 2003-04. It’s been relatively steady at 5.2 goals per game ever since, but on Sunday there were nine goals scored — total — in three hockey games.

“The difference that I’ve seen in the last three years is, all the big players can skate like the little guys,” said Hitchcock.

In very few cases do those bigger bodies have the same skill as the little guys. But, as hockey people say, “they can get there.”

That means defensive systems are deployed that no longer hinge on restraining the opponent with sticks, as they once did, but instead perfect positioning by big bodies that eliminate time and space.

The result? Chip and chase hockey which, once again, favours the big guys. (And in our personal opinion, is tiresome to watch.)

“We’re gonna have to win games 2-1,” said San Jose defenceman Brad Start. “We’re not going to win games 5-4, 6-3 games. That’s not the team we are. Once we figure that it, we’re a lot better team.”

If you wondering if that refrain qualifies as cliché, ask yourself this: When is the last time you heard a player, coach or manager say, “We’d rather not play 2-1 games. We want to win 5-4, 6-3 games?”

Even a player like Stuart, nearly a point-per-game defenceman during his Western Hockey League career, knows the score. The coaches dictate who plays, and thereby, who earns a paycheque.

Either you play the coach’s system, or find some other line or work.

“That was the exciting part when you were young, scoring goals,” Stuart said. “But hey, if you want to say in this league that’s not how it works now. Each player has to figure that out.

“It’ll dictate how long you stick around.”

Gillis made it clear his team has to fix its penchant for being pushed out of playoff games by bigger, stronger opponents. In Edmonton it is accepted fact that a smaller forward like Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Sam Gagner will have to be traded for some size for the Oilers to become a relevant team.

It seems our old scout’s tenet still applies.

“If they’re just as talented, then bigger does matter,” said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. “Big and fast is better than little and fast. No question. Most series’ are six games. If you play them six or seven times, there’s a lot of wear and tear there.”

Smaller guys can play, but they must have the superior skill of a Martin St. Louis, or be as competitive and dogged as a Brendan Gallagher, Matt Calvert or Jaden Schwartz.

Yes, there is still room for a Mikael Grabovski, an Ales Hemsky or an Alex Tanguay. But you’d better not have too many, or you turn into Vancouver — a fantastic regular season team that’s not built for playoff hockey.

Now the Canucks, Oilers, Flames, and every other team trying to build a winner in this copycat league, will be in search of size.

Where is it going to come from?

That folks, is an excellent question.

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