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Tyler Johnson: Shout Out, Little Man

Let’s start with the obvious: bodies are indispensable to the sports we play. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of shorties in pro hoops. There’s a reason a beanpole won’t get far in the NFL, protein shakes be damned. There’s a reason that female gymnasts often linger beneath the five-foot mark.

We know these reasons intuitively. But do we really understand them?

For me, an abiding question is how bodies change in sports, and what that can tell you about the sport itself — or even something larger.

Take Tyler Johnson, a forward for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. With the playoffs nearing their halfway mark, Tyler Johnson leads all scorers with 8 goals (in 12 games), three of which were game winners. This is an astonishing development. Tyler Johnson is listed at 5-9, 175 pounds. He is one of the lightest, shortest players in the NHL — and he is scoring goals at a time when the NHL game turns particularly physical, savage, and all-around hostile to anyone small.

It’s also significant, in large part, because the NHL has been trying to bring speed and skill back to its game. About a decade ago, as I’ve written, the NHL found its sport had congealed from a free-flowing, high-scoring game to more of a sludge. The goals weren’t pretty, in the main. The defense was stifling and about as well-policed as 1980s Brooklyn. The players, especially on defense, were so very large and slow. And they said such mean things.

Since then, the game’s opened up and reached a new, much more entertaining equilibrium. Now, if you’re a big guy, you’d better be fast too, or you won’t see ice time — you’ll be “riding the pine,” as hockey people say.

But something else has happened, too: small, skilled players have reemerged. Guys like Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings (5-11, 198), Martin St. Louis of the New York Rangers and formerly the Tampa Bay Lightning (5-8, 176), and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (5-11, 181) aren’t just teensy exceptions in a big man’s game; they’re shaping the game itself, with dramatic goals in clutch moments.

Could this mark a turning point?

Historically, size has mattered in hockey — especially in drafting. Datsyuk, probably the most skilled player of this era, was drafted in the 6th round. Surprised? Martin St. Louis was undrafted, and he is now considered one of the most clutch playoff players in the league.

Tyler Johnson also went undrafted.

“Players like Tyler Johnson, players before him like Martin St. Louis…in a lot of ways what they do is open the door for smaller players coming into the NHL,” Jeff Marek, a host on the Hockey Central podcast at Canada’s Sportsnet, said on a recent episode. “Talking as a General Manager, when you look at players like Tyler Johnson, or players like that, do you not say to yourself, ‘You know what? Maybe I can’t just dismiss a guy because of his size.’ ”

“Well you can’t anymore, because the game’s changed,” responded Doug MacLean, a former NHL GM and coach. He remembered meetings where one scout kept pushing Martin St. Louis, then a player in the minors. MacLean and his colleagues were skeptical. Five foot eight? How good could he be?

Speaking from personal experience, I can see the skepticism. I’m shorter and lighter than all the players mentioned above, which means that when I’m out on the rink, my head is at a lower altitude than the other players’ heads are. This isn’t a huge deal in roller hockey, since checking isn’t really part of the game. In ice hockey, where the physicality and speed are dialed up, having a lower head can get your clock cleaned.

Being taller, obviously, gives you a larger wingspan on the ice. And being heavier makes your hits more… crunchy.

So if Tyler Johnson represents a trend, is it showing up in the numbers? To approach the question, I looked at the last five years of playoff scoring. I focused on the top 10 scorers each year. And I went by points per game, not total points (obviously, to correct for the fact that teams that are still in the playoffs have higher scoring in absolute terms).*

Let’s check the results. Here’s the average height (in inches) and weight of the top 10 scorers, by points per game, over the last five playoff seasons.

height-weight-chart

The story is murky. Both height and weight appears to have upticked over the last five seasons, but not with sufficient strength to be called a trend. Also, the game’s reforms occurred more than ten years ago. Maybe hockey bodies have already adjusted and their new equilibrium is 6′, 200 lbs.

But what happens if we look back further? Interesting things. I took just one year, the 2000-2001 season, to see if anything stood out. And that year, the top 10 scorers (by points per game) averaged 73.6″ in height (or just under 6-2) and 202.2 pounds.

Statistically significant? Maybe, maybe not. But it does make one wonder: Were there Tyler Johnsons who went undrafted in 2001? Whose coaches didn’t play them because they were seen as unfit for a big man’s game? We have the data from 2001, but we don’t have the counterfactual that says what would’ve happened if smaller players had been given a shot.

Well, we’ve got 2015, and we’ve got Tyler Johnson. Maybe at the next draft, some GMs will remember him and reconsider the smaller, skilled prospects who “lack NHL size.” It’d be a big bet. But with big risks come big rewards.

*All data from ESPN.com and thus subject to the usual imperfections that come with measuring height and weight.


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SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

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