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Hunting the Next Zdeno Chara: 13 NHL draft picks, 84 feet, 1169 NHL GP

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"To the last I reach for thee; from hell's heart I project greatness for thee; for hate's sake I waste my first pick on thee."

Three first-round picks in action.
Three first-round picks in action.
Jared Wickerham

It sounds crazy, but the pendulum of player evaluation in some hockey circles has swung to the point that big guys get a bad rap.

Granted, all other things being equal, you usually prefer the guy with more size -- a goalie takes up more space (Ben Bishop), a defenseman covers more ground (Zdeno Chara), a forward better protects the puck and survives the battles (Todd Bertuzzi, once upon a time). However...

..."All other things being equal."

With rare exceptions, all other things are not equal. So to watch Adam Creighton pivot with the puck was to watch an oil tanker attempt to do a U-turn* in the Panama Canal: Fascinatingly awkward and slow, but damn impressive if pulled off. Creighton notched 187 NHL goals -- not too shabby in mostly secondary roles.

*I actually don't know that any tanker would ever need, or be able, to turn around in the Panama Canal. It sounds foolish, yet I suppose it would save a lot of money if it became suddenly necessary. But that's neither here nor there. And this is August in the hockey calendar.

More than ever in today's NHL, speed and skill have become more important, while the ability to illegally obstruct is no longer highly sought. There is more room for the small player. Guys who are big but slow (no pun intended) to acclimate to the NHL are often dismissed as big lugs just drafted for their size.

First-Round Picks of a Certain Distinction

Joe Finley signed with the Hamilton Bulldogs Tuesday, ending his tenure with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and their NHL parent New York Islanders, where he played 16 of the 21 games in an NHL career that, judging by its current trajectory at age 27, may have already come and gone.

This prompted a few quips on Twitter from jaded fans (quips? Twitter? jaded fans? Never!), including the Capitals pundits at Japers' Rink recalling that yes, Finley really was a first-round selection (27th overall) back in 2005.

That continued an exchange with Bruce Peter (@saskhab) of Habs Eyes on the Prize, who recalled that Finley was part of one of his favorite paragraphs, in a prospect review of big Jared Tinordi last fall:

It's tough not to mention [Tanordi's] size as his obvious strength, but he is more than a giant behemoth in his own zone. This should set him apart from past defensemen drafted early for their extremely large, freakish some might say, frame. Indeed, if Tinordi sticks, he would be almost the equivalent of finding that rare needle in the haystack... The gem that breaks the mold.

Finley is not mentioned in that paragraph directly, but he is one of those hyperlinks that point to a series of giant defensemen drafted in the first round. Let's review those men, shall we? The total 1,169 games played is almost half due to the late Wade Belak, who was converted to a forward in order to serve his career as an enforcer.

  • Wade Belak: 1st round, 12th overall, 1994, Quebec Nordiques. 6'5. 545 NHL GP (33 pts., an enforcer)
  • Maxim Kuznetzov: 1st round, 26th overall, 1995, Detroit Red Wings. 6'5. 136 NHL GP.
  • Dan Focht: 1st round, 11th overall, 1996, Phoenix Coyotes. 6'6. 82 NHL GP.
  • Kristian Kudroc, 1st round, 28th overall, 1999, New York Islanders. 6'6. 26 NHL GP.
  • Matthew Spiller, 2nd round, 31st overall, 2001, Phoenix Coyotes. 6'5. 68 NHL GP.
  • Boris Valábik: 1st round, 10th overall, 2004, Atlanta Thrashers. 6'7. 80 NHL GP.
  • Sasha Pokulok: 1st round, 14th overall, 2005, Washington Capitals. 6'5. 0 NHL GP.
  • Andy Rogers: 1st round, 30th overall, 2005, Tampa Bay Lightning. 6'5. 0 NHL GP.
  • Joe Finley: 1st round, 27th overall, 2005, Washington Capitals. 6'8. 21 NHL GP.
  • Vladimír Mihálik: 1st round, 30th overall, 2005, Tampa Bay Lightning. 6'8. 15 NHL GP.
  • Keaton Ellerby: 1st round, 10th overall, 2007, Florida Panthers. 6'5. 211 NHL GP and still counting...
  • Alex Plante: 1st round, *15th overall, 2007, Edmonton Oilers. 6'5. 10 NHL GP.
  • Carl Sneep: 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2007, Pittsburgh Penguins. 6'5. 1 NHL GP.

*Ryan Smyth trade alert, making this post almost doubly relevant to the Isles!

For some added fun, here is what EliteProspects had to say about a few select members of this group. See if you can spot the similarities...

Kudroc:

A giant with great strength and reach. Kudrocs main strength is the defensive game and the play in front of his own goalie. He plays a physical brand of hockey with decent timing in his hits. Has a powerful release that can be used in powerplay situations. Has, however, some problems with his temper and takes too many penalties. Sometimes he overrates his own offensive ability, which causes turn-overs.

Valabik:

A defenseman with a physical style. Useful in front of his own goal and on penalty kill. Not a very good skater and sometimes takes too many unnecessary penalties.

Mihalik:

Mihálik is a huge stay-at-home defenseman, who plays a tough and physical game. Has limited hockey sense, but is a decent skater for his size. Doesn't offer much on offense.

Ouch.

Still, it's gotten to the point that every huge guy with low scoring taken in the draft is looked at suspiciously, but it's worth noting how many of the above were taken very late in the first round or early in the second. By that point in the draft, you're already dealing with quickly declining odds for success. So you can understand why a team is tempted to think, "Man, if this giant kid figures it all out..."

As Bruce Peter said, teams are hoping for that guy who breaks the mold.

It's not quite a fair comparison, but it's worth remembering that Chara himself (selected in the 3rd round, 56th overall) was still quite a project even four, five seasons after he was drafted. His skating needed lots of work -- work he did -- and it wasn't until some genius gave him up that Chara's offense started to explode.

Anyway, this is not an argument to ever draft Dylan McIlrath 10th overall. (Well, by all means the Rangers should keep doing that, but no one else should.) Rather, it's just an observation that as long as behemoths keep coming along, teams are going to take shots on them, because doggone it, one of these days they'll catch their Moby Dick.