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Numbers Game

Like every other kid growing up in Canada, I wanted to be a professional hockey player. There was nothing I loved more than playing hockey. I used to lay awake at nights thinking about my game the following day.

At the tender age of 14, I had a life defining moment. I remember it like it was yesterday. I looked at my dad and saw his sold 6”1 frame, an ideal size for a hockey player, but then I looked over at my mom and saw her petite 5” frame and then it hit me “There is no way I am going to be tall! I am doomed to a life of average height, if I am lucky. ” Putting aside my lack of hockey skills, I came to the realization that I was going to be too small to be a professional hockey player!

Well, that was a dramatization. I knew that my house-league training was certainly not going to prepare me for a professional hockey career. However, how often have you heard that a player is just too small to play in the NHL? Martin St. Louis certainly heard it his entire life, but he is the NHL to stay!

Before the lockout, everyone said that the clutching and grabbing was preventing smaller players from utilizing their speed to demonstrate their skills. A lot of NHLers complained that the refs were not calling interference penalties. And then came the lockout. While Bettman and Saskin spent months trying to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement, Colin Campbell of the NHL, Brendan Shanahan and a handful of other NHL players convened to try to improve the on-ice product. One of their main objectives was to eliminate all of the clutching and grabbing. They decided that impeding a player’s progression would be strictly enforced.

This was the start of “the NEW NHL,” as Joe Bowen loves to constantly remind us. No more clutching and grabbing. More free-flowing, fast-paced, unimpeded hockey! Does this mean that the “new” NHL is more short-player friendly? Did I lack the foresight at the age of 14 to realize that one day “undersized” players could actually succeed in a big man’s game? Heck, I would have been 23 years old when the lockout ended and in my hockey prime!

In today’s Numbers Game, I looked at the offensive production of “undersized” players in the NHL (for the purpose of this analysis, I included all players 5”10 and shorter). I compared the average offensive production for the two years before the lockout and the two seasons post-lockout.

For the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 seasons, there were a combined 119 players who were 5”10 and under. In contrast, there were 117 players combined for the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons.

While there was a negligible drop in the number of short players post-lockout, they did in fact enjoy greater success in the “new” NHL in terms of points scored. “Short” players scored in the pre-lockout, on average, 10.06 goals and 15.48 assists for a total of 25.55 points with 48.88 games played. Post lockout, the offensive numbers jumped to, on average, 12.31 goals and 18.87 assists for a total of 31.17 points with 51.92 games played. This reflects an increase of 22% in point production.

However, it appears that this increase can be better attributed to the increase in league-wide scoring. While more “undersized” players scored 50 or more points post-lockout, they did not rank any higher among the league leaders. In 2002-2003, 4 “undersized” players ranked in the top 30 forwards. In 2003-2004, there were 5 players. In the past two seasons following the lockout, there have only been 3 “undersized” players in each season that ranked among the top 30 in the NHL.

It appears that “undersized” players are at no more of an advantage than other NHLers in today’s NHL. “Undersized” players did score, on average, more points following the lockout, but that trend was not unique to those players. League-wide scoring has increased. Maybe the crack-down on clutching and grabbing has led to the increase in scoring. Some suggest that the elimination of the red line has also contributed to the increase. However, the effects of the rule changes have been noticed league-wide, not just by those affectionately deemed “undersized”.

At least at a full-grown 5”10, I don’t have to regret my decision to give up my dream to become a professional hockey player.

For Illegal Curve, I am Adam Gutkin.