Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Bag of Pucks - April 9 - Size Matters

Depending on where you look, you can often find 17 different weight classes in the sport of boxing.  These weight classes range from 105 to Heavyweight and cut everything into segments of between 5 and 8 pounds.  In that sport, it is often thought of as a major issue for a fighter to deal with the brute strength of someone one weight class or two up the ladder.  A few pounds can make all of the difference in the world.

Meanwhile, in mixed martial arts, they have fewer weight classes, but the still the divide exists.  For someone to leave 170, like Georges St Pierre to move up to 185 to fight Anderson Silva, it seems like a gap that is tough to overcome.  Meanwhile, when Silva did go tangle at 205, he just dazzled those who follow the sport because the weight did not seem to affect him like it did mere mortals.  UFC legend BJ Penn saw his legend dimmed by trying 170 when at 155 he was a force that will not soon be forgotten. He just tried to defy science and found out why it doesn't always work.

I tell you all of this in this week's discussion about the Dallas Stars because weight matters.  A lot.  As does strength and size in general.  There is a reason there are weight classes in combat sports.  To attempt to equalize the fact that size matters.  Without weight classes, things are more dependent on simple science running its course.

In the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl.  Perhaps coincidentally, they also had the largest team in the NFL based on average body weight.  It doesn't determine every game, but when physicality matters, you can either be the hammer or the nail.

Which brings us to the National Hockey League, a sport where hits happen every minute and a scramble for a loose puck in a goal mouth often comes down to who can hold their ground and who can be pushed out of the way.  There are seldom calls to regulate the situation, as it is often a survival of the fittest sequence, where the stronger team gets to the more loose pucks on a more regular basis.

Does it determine everything?  Of course not.  But does it give teams that little edge by being bigger?  It certainly is worth considering.

When the Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup, they had a legendary blue-line from a standpoint of versatility and size.  They could do just about anything you wanted to do - if you wish to move the puck they had Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor and if you wished to get physical, say hello to the giant Derian Hatcher, Craig Ludwig, and Richard Matvichuk.  Relying on sketching size and weights from old records, we believe the average height and weight of that group that also included Shawn Chambers was 6'2 1/2" and 214.8 each.  That is a huge group by today's standards and in 1999 it was even larger.

Now, when we have recently seen teams crash the net against the Stars, we see Dallas features a blue-line that has very little size, save for new potential-savior Brenden Dillon who at 6'3, 228 is quite a find after losing Sheldon Souray.  Add Dillon to Philip Larsen, Alex Goligoski, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, and even the larger Aaron Rome, and you still sit with a group that sits at 6'0" and 201.8 each.

As you can tell, that is a drop of two-and-a-half inches and 13 pounds, per player.  Or, to put it in boxing terms, 2 weight classes per man for the entire group.  And you wonder why these guys can't clear the crease like the good 'ol days.  While the entire league is getting bigger, the Stars are shrinking.

This leads us to how this particular Stars team has been built, and why they are attempting to fix their massive size deficiencies.  This is not comparing them to the best team in Stars history, this is comparing them to the league in which they now compete, in an effort to regain status as a playoff-team and eventually a contender to win the Stanley Cup.  Again, let us remind those who think I am simply equating size to success, that it doesn't determine everything in this sport.  But, there is a reason teams over-draft looking for the next Milan Lucic on the wing.  Size can cause the opponent a huge amount of issues, and you would rather be the team that is causing problems than the team that is trying to figure out how to deal with them.

Every year, Toronto NHL journalist James Mirtle catalogues the league by height and weight. To my knowledge, this excludes goalies and players that do not play enough to qualify, and it does use the very dicey listings in media guides to try to keep things fair.  And according to his list for the 2012 season, the Stars were the 29th heaviest (199.3) and 26th tallest team (6'0.7) in the NHL.

Then, for 2013, they actually shrunk again.  This season (at the start of the year) they were the 29th heaviest team again, but down to 197.2 per player, and they dropped to the 28th tallest team at 6'0.4 per player.  This, of course, is when you add Derek Roy and Ray Whitney to an already tiny team.

This caused people like me to stress about the Stars being bullied around the ice.  Some take that to mean that I want more guys who enjoy fighting, but that really isn't it.  Size in hockey has very little to do with fighting, but rather loose pucks in the crease or the old coach cliche of a puck going in the corner and 2 guys go in with 1 coming out with the puck.  Who is going to win these man-battles for the little piece of rubber?  And who are the two heaviest teams in the NHL right now?  The Los Angeles Kings (the defending Cup Champion) and the San Jose Sharks - teams that play your tiny blue-line constantly.

So, aside from depressing those who agree that this is an issue, there appears to be hope on the rise.  Big Alex Chiasson is 6'4, 207 and he will get to 215-220 in time.  Lane MacDermid who might have a spot on the 4th line next season is 6'3, 205 and appears much bigger.  Brett Ritchie might be the biggest of them all even though he is listed at 6'3, 209 right now at the age of 19.  1st round pick and center of the future Radek Faksa is already 6'3, 205 at the age of barely 19, too.  And about that blue-line?  Well, the hope of the franchise is developing down there.  Jamie Oleksiak, who has so much expectation heaped on him, is 6'7, 242, or perhaps the guy who with Dillon could be Hatcher and Matvichuk.  Joe Morrow and Kevin Connauton are both 6'1, with Morrow already above league average size at 205, but Connauton is listed at 185.

Again, the exercise here is not to draw conclusions strictly on height and weight.  Martin St Louis and Theo Fleury, and Doug Gilmour have all taught us that size doesn't matter as much as being strong on the puck and sheer will, but it can't hurt to want to find your way back into the top half of the league in size.  And when you are building the roster and deciding which players you wish to invest in, you keep in the front of your mind this discussion of size.

If the average player in the NHL in 2013 is 6'1 and 203.5 lbs, then, putting $30 million on Derek Roy (5'9, 185) or Mike Ribeiro (5'11, 178) as your 2nd center is a risky play.  That is why I believe Joe Nieuwendyk continues to look for a better option in that spot.

You can have small players and win in this league.  Just not too many.  And you can really make the case that the Stars have become too small and therefore have been pushed around too much.  I believe the front office sees this (albeit perhaps a bit later than you would like) and is working to address it quickly.  We shall see how that happens.

The meek may inherit the earth, but they seldom win the Stanley Cup.

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