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Smaller players attracting more attention

by Mike G. Morreale

BUFFALO -- The smaller forwards of today's game are taking advantage of the NHL rule changes in 2005 that helped facilitate more of an offensive style of play.

They also are changing the way scouts think when it comes to the NHL draft.

A quick glance at the scoring leaders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs shows Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson (5-foot-8, 183 pounds) with a League-best 21 points, one point more than Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane (5-11, 177).

There are several players participating in the 2015 NHL Scouting Combine this week who are small in stature but have plenty of skill. They include London Knights center Mitchell Marner (5-11, 160), No. 6 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, and United States National Team Development Program under-18 team right wing Jeremy Bracco (5-9, 173), who ranks No. 60.

"When the rules changed it opened up the game more as far as the speed of the game and it has allowed smaller players to succeed more in the NHL," Washington Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. "You still have to have strength. But the smaller players that do play in the League have that, and by small I mean height-wise.

"I think when there is less hooking and holding in the neutral zone, it allows players of smaller stature to be more successful in the NHL."

Bracco, who is committed to Boston College in 2015-16, had 30 goals and a USNTDP-leading 64 assists in 65 games; he did so skating on a line with Auston Matthews, the projected top choice in the 2016 NHL Draft, for eight games.

"Everybody has their opinion on size," Bracco said. "I guess everyone thinks you can mold a guy that's 6-foot-5 more so than a 5-foot-9 player. But I believe if you can play the game you can play, as long as you don't play like you're 5-foot-9. As long as you play with a heart and have that passion I really believe that you can be a factor.

"Look at the top two scorers in the playoffs in Tyler Johnson and Patrick Kane; it's nice to see that."

Bracco feels that he could go anywhere from No. 15 to No. 35 in the draft. Marner is expected to be selected within the top seven.

"The NHL right now is at a point where size doesn't matter; it's all about the skill and passion," Marner said. "I think if you go out there and show that you're willing to go every shift, willing to prove a point and prove that you can hold your own, that skills are more important than the size."

Buffalo Sabres director of amateur scouting Greg Royce said he believes scouts and general managers will select a smaller player if he exhibits good skating ability, good smarts and a big heart.

"You look at Johnson and [Brendan] Gallagher with the Montreal Canadiens; there are a lot of smaller players at the NHL level having great success," Royce said. "If the choice is between a big player who can skate and has skill and a small player that can skate, has skill and is more passionate and determined, you'll take the guy with more passion."


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