The NHL has had superstars of all shapes and sizes but imagine yourself in the shoes of a team’s GM in today’s league. Now, what is your ideal superstar? Probably big, fast and very skilled – Somebody like Alexander Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux or even Eric Lindros.
The thing about the game today is that most superstars aren’t necessarily the biggest guys on the ice. In fact, the game is slowly but surely gravitating towards smaller players because of their speed. Without a doubt, it’s speed that kills in the game today but physicality is the perfect counter to that.
The best NHL teams in the league today have a perfect blend of small and speedy players alongside big and aggressive players. Teams like the Canadiens, Penguins, Capitals, Blue Jackets, Wild and Blackhawks all have that blend and their play styles reflect it.
Some players though, don’t quite fill their roles and some players rise above and beyond their physical restrictions. The current NHL and the history of the league is riddled with small players who play like they’re the biggest players on the ice and big players who play like they’re the smallest. It’s human imperfection at it’s finest and it’s what creates the great balance in the game of hockey.
In today’s list we will be examining 8 small players who play like they’re big, and 7 big players who play like they’re small. All of these players are great assets to their respective teams, and this list is not designed to take away credit from any of them.
So with all of that out of the way, let’s get into it!
15 Small Playing Big: Brian Gionta
The 37-year-old is currently playing in his 15th NHL season on his third team – two of which he has been the captain of. Standing at 5’7” and 178 lbs, Gionta has had to battle for every bit of free ice throughout his career and he has won most of those battles. Gionta, despite his size, is an incredible warrior in the corners and around the net. He brings a certain level of intensity and aggression to his game that a good majority of players in the league can’t match.
Being a veteran and an experienced captain in the league, Gionta would be a great asset to any team – especially one looking to make a playoff push. His current team, the Buffalo Sabres, may not be playoff contenders now but I certainly do hope to see Gionta making a run deep into the playoffs as his career winds down.
14 Big Playing Small: Rick Nash
The three-time 40 goal scorer, Rick Nash, is an absolute force to be reckoned with when he wants to be. Without a doubt, Nash has talent and a lot of it. He also has very impressive speed for a man standing at 6’4” and 212 lbs. He is caught somewhere between an amazing power forward, and a good purely offensive player. Nash rarely finds a combo of the two play styles, but when he does he is a very impressive hockey player.
Nash is just not a very physical player for whatever reason despite his size. Where he finds success is around the net – Whether that be driving the net, hunting for rebounds, or parked in front looking for a tip or a screen. To take his game to the next level, Nash needs to start putting the puck in deep and laying the body on opposing defenseman. That will open the ice up more for him and allow him to use that scoring touch he has shown us.
13 Small Playing Big: Nathan Gerbe
Standing at 5’4” and 176 lbs, Nathan Gerbe is one of the most disadvantaged players by size in the NHL. His size does not hold him back from going to the dirty areas though; Gerbe is a great chip-and-chase player with great speed, agility, and soft hands. His short stature allows him to make ridiculously sharp cuts in the ice and allows him to pass through gaps that most players simply can’t.
He is the type of player to create a buzz in the offensive end with a good cycle game and then backcheck hard enough to get the puck back if his team lost it. Unfortunately, at the beginning of this season, Gerbe refused to report to Hartford of the AHL and is now on waivers. He was set to play for the New York Rangers, but with the recent signings of Vesey, Pirri, Grabner and Buchnevich, Gerbe was left out of the equation.
12 Big Playing Small: Jay Bouwmeester
Jay Bouwmeester stands at 6’4” and 221 lbs and is one of the best skating defensemen in the NHL. The 33-year-old is currently playing in his 14th NHL season with his third team, the St. Louis Blues. Bouwmeester is a key member of the Blues’ blueline, and just an absolute delight to watch skate with the puck. He has played over 1000 games and tallied 385 points (and counting) in the process.
What prevents Bouwmeester from reaching that next level is his soft play. It’s incredibly difficult to outskate or dangle through Bouwmeester but battling with him along the wall and in the corners is another story. Most aggressive players are able to out battle him, or at least come down on him without having to worry about being stepped up on.
11 Small Playing Big: Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher, standing at 5’9” and 182 lbs, is very comparable to Brad Marchand – not only in size but play styles and skill level too. The 24-year-old is currently in his fifth NHL season, all of which have been played with the Montreal Canadiens. Gallagher averages 35 points per season but has been sidelined in back-to-back seasons with back-to-back broken hands.
What makes Gallagher truly valuable is his style of play; he plays a complete game in both ends of the ice with one of the best work ethics in the game. With a career plus-minus rating of 48, he evidently takes care of his defensive end. On top of his complete game, Gallagher is also one of the best pests in the league. He constantly drives hard into the dirty areas and is almost always seen chirping opposing players and then skating away with his trademark irritating smile across his face.
10 Big Playing Small: Evgeni Malkin
A name every hockey fan knows, Evgeni Malkin, is a big and talented center playing in his 11th NHL season. The big Russian has tallied 809 points in 687 regular season games (so far) and has dropped 129 points in 124 playoff games. Malkin has won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins and is hopeful for another one this season.
Where Malkin doesn’t lack in skill, he lacks in physicality. Only showing rare flares of aggression, Malkin has largely stuck to the perimeter throughout his career, sniping from the half wall or ripping shots from the point on the power play. An aspect of his game that has been showing a bit more as of late is his use of his size when making rushes; He now sometimes drops his shoulder and crashes the net. With his skill and his size, there’s no reason why Malkin can’t take his game to the next level.
9 Small Playing Big: Max Domi
Currently in his second NHL season, Max Domi is a player that definitely doesn’t let his size influence his game. Son of ex-NHL enforcer, Tie Domi, Max definitely shows shades of his father with his gritty play as well as impressive fighting abilities. What separates Max from Tie is Max’ skill; he has incredibly soft hands and the cherry on top is his pin-point accurate wrist shot.
His low center of gravity allows him to control the puck with incredible ease while flying down the wing and his sheer grittiness makes it a very difficult task to take the puck off his stick. In just two seasons of play, Domi has made the highlight reels for great offensive plays and also impressive fighting performances. I can’t wait to see what else this kid has in store for us as his career moves forward.
8 Big Playing Small: Jeff Carter
Two-time Stanley Cup winner, Jeff Carter, is a big and talented center currently playing in his 12th NHL season. Carter has tallied 624 points in 839 games (so far) and is an offensive weapon every team needs to worry about when he’s on the ice. With 116 playoff games played, Carter has tallied an impressive 74 points including 39 goals. He’s a great player, but I believe he could be even better.
What’s lacking in Jeff Carter’s arsenal is his play in the middle of the ice and dirty areas. Carter has largely been a perimeter player throughout his career – This simply means that he sticks to the outside along the wall looking for passes and shots. There’s nothing wrong with that style of play but with Carter’s size, he should be driving and crashing the net way more often than he is.
7 Small Playing Big: Cal Clutterbuck
Cal Clutterbuck has earned himself quite the reputation of being a chippy and hard to play against player despite being on the smaller side of things. Clutterbuck is consistently among the players who deliver the most hits per season; He is currently ranked seventh in the league with 137 hits, averaging 3.43 hits per game.
Clutterbuck was named an assistant captain of his team, the New York Islanders at the beginning of this season. The 29-year-old is currently in his 10th NHL season and one of the core veterans for the Islanders, a team that is on the rise and very capable playoff contenders. With his leadership qualities and aggressive style of play, I can’t wait to see Clutterbuck and his amazing mustache in the playoffs again.
6 Big Playing Small: The Sedin Twins
Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, are players you either love or you hate. Largely regarded as two of the softest players in the league, the Sedin twins are also known for their remarkable offensive abilities. Henrik will definitely reach the 1000-point milestone this season as he sits at 999 points and Daniel is a definite possibility, currently sitting at 967.
The thing about the Sedins is that they have virtually no physical presence on the ice. They happily stick to the perimeter and play it better than most in the league. Could you imagine if the Sedins fought, hit, and drove the net? They’d be unstoppable. With their puck handling skills, passing ability, shooting ability and chemistry, the addition of physicality would make them the best one-two punch in the league – Pun intended.
5 Small Playing Big: Jaden Schwartz
The 24-year-old winger for the St. Louis Blues is currently playing in his sixth season in the NHL – all of which have been with the Blues. Jaden Schwartz is a great and largely underrated two-way player in the league. When he stays healthy, Schwartz is capable of putting up 50-70 points and with a career plus-minus rating of 46. It’s safe to say he’s an asset in the defensive end as well. He’s a truly versatile player that can play in all situations including power play and penalty kill.
Being on a great team such as the Blues, Schwartz has had a decent amount of playoff experience and has performed in those games – putting up 21 points in 38 playoff games. The Blues have had their fair share of playoff disappointments but Schwartz and the Blues are ready to give it another shot this season.
4 Big Playing Small: Tyler Myers
This 6’8” 229 lb defenceman is currently in his eighth NHL season with his second team, the Winnipeg Jets. Myers is a great hockey player equipped with great skating ability, puck handling skills, and a great shot. As the 26-year-old's career progresses, I think he will only improve his game and become an elite NHL blue-liner. Myers has tallied 198 points in 473 (so far) games with a career high of 48 in his rookie season with the Buffalo Sabres.
Unfortunately, Myers just doesn’t have that edge or physical presence like his Jets teammate, Dustin Byfuglien. Myers is almost always the biggest guy on the ice but has not quite used that size to his advantage just yet in his career. With his size and skating ability, Myers can close the gap on opposing forwards in the blink of an eye and in order to take his game to the next level, he needs to close that gap and lay the body a lot more.
3 Small Playing Big: Ryan Callahan
Former captain of the New York Rangers, and current assistant captain of the Tampa Bay Lighting, Ryan Callahan is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. Despite being only 5’10” and 187 lbs, Callahan has proven to be an absolute warrior and very highly valued player in the league.
At 31 years of age, he has already played over 100 playoff games and displayed his leadership qualities constantly throughout his nine NHL season career. He’s a tremendous asset to any team looking to make a deep playoff run, and the Tampa Bay Lighting are the perfect team. In the past two seasons Callahan has been sidelined six times due to injury, so hopefully he can stay healthy as the Bolts look to make another playoff push.
2 Big Playing Small: Joe Thornton
The 37-year-old veteran is a definite legend and an easily recognizable force on the ice – Mostly because of his offensive abilities but also his glorious beard. Currently in his 19th NHL season, the grizzled vet has dropped 1368 points in 1411 games (so far) and still has a spring in his step. Thornton is a valued leader and has worn the ‘C’ for both of his NHL teams, the Boston Bruins and the San Jose Sharks.
“Jumbo Joe” is 6’4” and 220 lbs, but has been known to play like a player of half that size. Over the past few seasons Joe has made good progress in abolishing that reputation but for the majority of his career, Joe was indeed soft. He was not a very strong player in the corners or in front of the net. His style is from the outside where he makes his infamous amazing passes but to take his game to the next level he needs to be a net presence and frolic around in the garbage a bit more.
1 Small Playing Big: Brad Marchand
Standing at 5’9” and 181 lbs, Brad Marchand is a name you’re probably familiar with and a player you most likely hate. Marchand is a staple in the Boston Bruins’ offense, a team that he won the Stanley Cup with back in 2011. While he is a great offensive threat, averaging just over 20 goals per season, Marchand is perhaps most well known for his edge and pesky abilities.
Brad Marchand is the type of player you dread playing against. He plays an in-your-face game of hockey full of chirps, slashes, crosschecks or really anything that will get under your skin. Once he’s under your skin, that’s when his skill takes over and he backs up his mouth. His value was really displayed in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks; he completely shut down the Sedins, who have appeared on the list, and really got under the skin of not only the Canucks but the entire city of Vancouver – myself included.