It’s that time of year again: the time when teams learn what you need to win in the new NHL based on who got to the Stanley Cup Final. Is it speed and skill? Size and toughness? Veteran savvy? Youthful energy?
It’s silly, really. The attributes that lead to a winning season can’t be narrowed down to a couple pithy words and definitely shouldn’t be derived from the small sample size of a few playoff games. It’s always going to be a combination of factors and winning teams usually have a bit of everything: size, speed, skill, experience, youth, and a little luck to hold it all together.
And yet, every year, we get some sort of summation of what it takes to win in the NHL as teams move on in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues about to meet in the Final, some are suggesting that big, tough, heavy hockey is back. Sure, just one year ago there were voices declaring the death of heavy hockey, but the Bruins and Blues have evidently resuscitated heavy hockey and brought it back to life.
San Jose Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer certainly thinks that’s the case after the Blues manhandled his team in the Western Conference Final.
“Their team is a hard team. I think the two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” he said. “Everyone talks about skill and all the small players, and there is room for that, but I don’t think it’s an accident. They’re heavy, hard and organized. There wasn’t any room out there.”
The Blues are definitely a big, heavy team that plays a tough, hard style. Their entire defence corps is over 6’0” and 200 lbs, led by the 6’6”, 230 lbs Colton Parayko. Joel Edmundson, Jay Bouwmeester, and Robert Bortuzzo are all 6’4”. That’s a heavy defence.
At forward, the Blues aren’t quite as big — their leading scorer in the playoffs is the 5’10” Jaden Schwartz — but they have some size and toughness in Pat Maroon and Oskar Sundqvist. Some of their most skilled players aren’t exactly small either: Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn are hard-nosed, gritty players, and even Vladimir Tarasenko is 225 lbs. He’s huge, despite his 6’0” frame, earning him the nickname “Tank” for his heavy game, even if it’s a name he’d prefer you not use.
So, the Blues certainly fit DeBoer’s description of a hard and heavy team. The Bruins, on the other hand, might not, despite their reputation.
Here’s the thing about the Bruins,: they have a lot of skill and a lot of small players. When DeBoer said, “There is room for that,” there’s evidently room for that in the Bruins lineup, specifically.
The Bruins first line is Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. All three of those players are tough in different ways, but they’re not big and heavy.
Marchand is a scrappy pain in the tuchus, but he’s also just 5’9”, 181 lbs. Bergeron is tough, but more in the sense of battling and playing through pain. Pastrnak is pure skill, even if he gets physical from time to time.
They do have some size at forward — David Backes and Charlie Coyle lead the way at 6’3” — but they’re certainly not a huge, heavy team up front like we’ve seen in the past from the Bruins. Heck, Backes is averaging the lowest ice time on the Bruins at 9:46 per game and has been a healthy scratch several times already in the playoffs.
On the blue line, the Bruins have two 5’9” defencemen that play significant minutes for them: Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk. They’re led in ice time by the 6’0” Charlie McAvoy and have two other defencemen under 6’0”: Connor Clifton and Steven Kampfer. They’re balanced out by the beastly Zdeno Chara (6’9”) and Brandon Carlo (6’5”), but they boast some of the smallest defencemen in the NHL.
How do these two teams stack up against the rest of the NHL in terms of size? I took the average height and weight of every NHL team, weighted by ice time so that players who play a more significant role for their teams influence the average more.
Looking at this chart, the Blues are indeed one of the biggest teams in the NHL. Only a few teams are taller and just one, the Los Angeles Kings, is heavier.
The Bruins, on the other hand, are below average and right around the same area as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Vancouver Canucks.
What stands out as well, is that bigger and heavier isn’t necessarily better. The Kings were one of the worst teams in the NHL this season and the Anaheim Ducks weren’t much better. If hard and heavy hockey alone was the key, you would expect the Kings and Ducks to have performed a little better this season.
On the other hand, too small might be a problem as well. Down in the bottom left, we see the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, and Arizona Coyotes, all of whom missed the playoffs. That said, the Canadiens and Coyotes just barely missed out: the Canadiens were two points out of the second Wild Card spot in the East, while the Coyotes were four points back in the West.
What happens when we split up the forwards and defence? Let’s look at the forwards first.
The Lightning drop way down: on average, they have the smallest forwards in the NHL, particularly ones that play significant minutes. Their early departure in the playoffs has likely played into the narrative that big, heavy hockey is back.
We also see that the Blues drop back a little: their forwards are closer to the league average, particularly in height, though they are still among the heavier teams up front. Tarasenko really skews that average.
We can see that a lot of the teams with bigger, heavier forwards didn’t make the playoffs: the Kings, Ducks, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, and Detroit Red Wings.
The Bruins are definitely on the smaller side at forward — just five teams are shorter — though they’re closer to average in terms of weight.
How about on defence?
This is an intriguing chart. Three of the biggest and heaviest defence corps were among the best teams in the NHL this season: the Blues, Lightning, and Winnipeg Jets. The New York Islanders may not have the tallest defence corps, but they’re among the heaviest, and they were a surprise top team in the East this season.
The Lightning are particularly intriguing, seeing as they simultaneously have the smallest forwards and the biggest defencemen. Considering how dominant they were during the regular season, that seems worth noting, even if they did get swept in the playoffs.
Down in the bottom left, we see that a lot of the smaller, lighter defence corps missed the playoffs: the Devils, Canucks, Wild, Red Wings, Coyotes, and Philadelphia Flyers. The Nashville Predators are the one exception.
The Bruins, despite several smaller defencemen, including the minute-munching Krug, are right in the middle when it comes to their average size. Carlo and Chara definitely skew them upwards. When Chara retires (which won’t be this season as he’s already signed a one-year extension), the Bruins’ average size on defence will drop dramatically.
So, what can we learn from this? One thing is that there doesn’t really seem to be a single blueprint for building a Cup-contending team. The Blues are big and heavy, but they combine it with speed and skill, as exemplified by their stars on forward and defence, Vladimir Tarasenko and Colton Parayko.
The Bruins, on the other hand, have a much wider range of sizes, even if they all play a “heavy” brand of hockey. They have 5’9” stars like Brad Marchand and Torey Krug, but also behemoths like Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo. Perhaps a dash of size — and to be clear, size that can play — makes it easier for smaller players to excel; the Lightning’s success with big defence and small forwards suggests that’s a winning formula.
The Canucks currently have a smaller-than-average defence, while their forwards are right around the middle. They’ll skew smaller next season, with Erik Gudbranson gone and Quinn Hughes joining the ranks, even though that’s a significant upgrade in terms of skill. Do the Canucks need to find a bit more size on the blue line?
The two biggest defencemen on the Canucks roster at the end of the season are currently without contracts for next year: Alex Edler and Luke Schenn. While they’re nowhere near as big as Chara and Carlo, re-signing the two of them wouldn’t hurt.
But remember what was said at the top of this article: boiling any championship team down to a couple pithy words or phrases will never quite capture what actually made them successful. "Big defence, small forwards" or "Make up for small players with giants" doesn't really sum up the Lightning or Bruins and trying to follow exactly in their footsteps will likely just lead to frustration. Learn from the best, but don't look for easy answers.