We all believe that NHL players are getting smaller and more skilled but is it true and are the smaller more skilled players leading teams to playoff success?
This all started by my (and others) observations that recent Stanley Cup champions have had big defensemen. Just look at last years Vegas Golden Knights. Hague 6’6″ 240lbs. McNabb 6’4″ 215lbs. Pietrangelo 6’3″ 215lbs. Whitecloud 6’2″ 218lbs. Martinez 6’1″ 210lbs. Theodore 6’2″ 197lbs. There are no small defensemen there. Is this a trend, or an anomaly?
To investigate this I looked at the top 6 defensemen on the Stanley Cup winning teams and looked at their average height and weight. Let’s start with weight first.
The two heaviest teams since 2000 are the back to back Tampa Bay Lightning teams but otherwise I don’t really see any trend upwards in weight of cup winning defensemen.
However, height may be a different story.
The four teams with the tallest defensemen have all won the cup in the past 5 seasons. St. Louis, the two Tampa wins and last years Vegas teams were teams with very tall defensemen.
This got me to wondering if there is a more general trend here with respect to playoff teams vs non playoff teams rather than just cup winning teams. Do good teams in general have taller defensemen or heavier defensemen? What about forwards.
(I will mention here that I found this article on the changing size of NHL players which inspired me to extend my research and I recommend you give it a read. The article noted that players in general are getting taller but lighter which is what I find below but I take it a step further and look at playoff success based on height and weight.)
Forwards are getting Lighter
I pulled all player heights and weights of NHL players since 1980-81 season and calculated a games played weighted average of height and weight for forwards. By that I mean a player playing 82 games gets 82 times the weight in the average than a player with just 1 game played. Here is how height and weight has changed over time.
Starting in the mid 1990’s height and weight of NHL forwards diverged. NHL forward heights have continued to rise, albeit slowly, but NHL forward weights leveled off and then started declining after the 2013-14 season.
Forward Height and Weight Does Not Seem to Impact Success
To answer the question of whether height and weight of forwards leads to greater playoff success I also calculated a games played weighted average of NHL forwards in the playoffs. Doing this will weigh forwards that go deep into the playoffs more heavily and forwards that don’t make the playoffs will get zero weight. By comparing the regular season average height and weight to the playoff average height and weight we can get an idea if the makeup of successful playoff teams differs from the makeup of the average regular season team. If taller and heavier leads to greater team success we should observe a difference.
Honestly, I cannot see a difference. Playoff height and weight of forwards generally mimics that of regular season height and weights of forwards. It doesn’t appear that forward height and weight has an impact on playoff success.
Defensemen are getting Lighter
The average height of NHL defensemen has been pretty stable since the late 1980’s however starting in 2011-12 the average weight of NHL defensemen has started dropping. This is not unlike what we saw with NHL forwards except the divergence started a little later for defensemen.
Taller and Heavier defensemen leads to Playoff Success?
This is where things get interesting. It seems that taller and heavier defensemen are still important to building successful teams.
There was a stretch from 2005-06 to 2016-17 where more often than not playoff teams were ever so slightly shorter than the average regular season team however in recent years the teams that had more playoff success were taller than that that did not have playoff success.
Since 1980-81 average playoff weights for defensemen mirrored quite closely the average regular season weights. However in recent years playoff weights have diverged and playoff defensemen have been heavier than the average regular season defenseman. Teams who have found playoff success seem to have had weightier defensemen.
To take this one step further I grouped defensemen into four groups depending on whether they played in the playoffs and how many games they played. From here I took the average height and weight of the defensemen in each group.
|Playoff GP between 8 and 14
|Playoff GP >= 15
So it looks like teams that go deeper into the playoffs have taller and heavier defensemen but teams that make the playoffs and get bumped out early are no bigger than teams that miss the playoffs. To win a round in the playoffs it seems you need bigger than average defensemen.
Is this a new phenomenon?
|Playoff GP between 8 and 14
|Playoff GP >= 15
Well, yes, it looks like this is a recent phenomenon. The defensemen on average have gotten smaller in the NHL however the defensemen that go deeper into the playoffs have not.
Is this a failure of Hockey Analytics
Everything seems to point to defensemen getting smaller on average which is likely in line with what hockey analytics has espoused – don’t worry about size, focus on skill. For forwards this seems to be true. I saw no difference in average height and weight for forwards when grouping by playoff success or now. This is not true for defensemen. Teams that have trended towards smaller defensemen have generally not seen success in the playoffs.
So is this a failure by hockey analytics? Well yes and no. It isn’t because there didn’t wasn’t any evidence that there was a penalty to having smaller defensemen prior to the 2016-17 season. Since then the evidence that having smaller defensemen hurts your chances of playoff success is starting to show which means analytics may need a course correction and we need to recognize that there is a cost to playing smaller skilled defensemen. Furthermore, more investigation into why there is a cost may be required.
Should some NHL Cup Contending Teams be Concerned?
If taller and heavier defensemen are important to playoff success, I looked at the defensemen teams have been using on defense thus far this season to see which teams have bigger defensemen. This table contains the games played weighted average height and weight for NHL defensemen used so far this season sorted by average height.
|Tampa Bay Lightning
|New Jersey Devils
|Vegas Golden Knights
|Columbus Blue Jackets
|New York Islanders
|Detroit Red Wings
|New York Rangers
|Los Angeles Kings
|Toronto Maple Leafs
|St. Louis Blues
|San Jose Sharks
It makes you wonder if teams like Colorado, Carolina, Toronto, Los Angeles and NY Rangers have big enough defensemen to win the Stanley Cup. The Florida Panthers may look a little small too, but they will look better with 6’4″ 215lb Aaron Ekblad in the lineup.
Tampa and Vegas still look like contenders so far as defensemen size goes and New Jersey, Dallas and Boston are right there too.
Meanwhile the Oilers have the biggest defense in the league but have they managed to play themselves out of a playoff spot?
It is important to note that I am not saying that all tall weighty defensemen are good and all short and light defensemen are bad. Obvious the players overall skill and ability still matters. However, the evidence is fairly clear that there is a cost to shorter, lighter defensemen, a cost that so far we haven’t seen with forwards.