I was writing up some comments for the League Of Extraordinary Statisticians question
this week when I was reminded of something a friend of mine told me a few months ago. The question on LOES was whether or not size matters in the NHL. My friend, who is, shall we say, deeply embedded in the developmental process, insisted to me that undersized American players do not develop through the CHL to the NHL. He went so far as to define "undersized" as below 6'0" for defensemen and below 5'10" for forwards. So after sending in my thoughts to LOES, I decided to dig a little deeper and see what the numbers say.
A review of current NHL rosters lists 16 undersized American defensemen and eight undersized American forwards. Checking their developmental pedigrees, I was surprised to find that 14 of the defensemen (88%) and all eight forwards came up through the college ranks. The two defensemen who didn't are Francis Bouillon of Nashville and James Wisniewski of Montreal. Bouillon's mother is French-Canadian and the family moved back to Quebec when Francis was three, so he was 100% developed in Canada before he played in the QMJHL. Wisniewski is a Detroit native who played a season for the old NAHL Compuware Ambassadors before moving up to the "parent" OHL Plymouth Whalers. Even without discounting these two examples as special circumstances, the claim from my friend holds true.
Of course, that's not to say the CHL is devoid of undersized players, or even undersized Americans. There are eleven undersized Canadian forwards in the NHL who developed through the CHL (and three more who played college hockey south of the border). There's also eight more undersized Canadian defensemen from the CHL (and four who came up through the NCAA). The majority of the undersized CHLers (10 of 19) came from the WHL, which is ironic since neither of the American undersized NHLers came through that league.
I ran a quick check of OHL rosters to see how many undersized Americans are playing today. Of 31 American forwards on OHL rosters, only Rudy Sulmonte of the Soo Greyhounds comes in under 5'10". Of 27 defensemen, three (Tyler Hostetter of Erie, Beau Schmitz of Plymouth, and Saverio Posa of Windsor) come in below 6'0". The average size of these players is telling as well. While the average height of American forwards in the OHL is close to the NHL average for forwards (6'0.7" vs. 6'0.8"), the average height of OHL American defensemen is slightly higher than the NHL average (6'1.89" vs. 6'1.75").
I also examined WHL rosters. While there are fewer American skaters in the NHL, a higher percentage of them are undersizedtwo of ten defensemen and two of eleven forwards. Interestingly, three of the four undersized players were with Spokane. Still, that's pretty limited numbers.
So what does this mean? If you're a young American looking to make the NHL, but somewhere on the smaller side, you're more likely to make the bigs via the college ranks. Perhaps CHL teams are less willing to take the risk on a small player the same way the NHL is less willing to take smaller players in the draft. Perhaps the average American player is smaller than the average Canadian. While part of Gary Bettman's Sunbelt strategy was to grow the youth game, and indeed we are starting to see some significant talent come out of non-traditional markets, the fact remains that unlike Canada, hockey is not the sport of choice for top American athletes.
I can use one quick anecdote to illustrate how culture impacts choice. Take two high school aged hockey players from the Oklahoma City area a few years back. One's father is from "up north", played hockey in his youth, and coaches local youth teams. The other's father played football and blocked for Billy Sims at the University of Oklahoma. The player with the "hockey dad" is Matt Donovan, University of Denver defenseman and Islanders' draft pick. The player with the "football dad" is Heisman Trophy winning QB Sam Bradford, who played hockey until he had to make that difficult choice in high school.Marc Foster is a frequent contributor to Hockey Prospectus.