Size Up The Middle: Can Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner Co-Exist?

Jonathan Willis
April 20 2012 01:00PM

The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with two young centres who are bona fide NHL players in the here and now, and who are only likely to get better with the passing of time. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in 2011, and Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007, are both excellent NHL talents and both fit nicely into the age group of the young forward corps the Oilers have assembled.

Unfortunately, neither stands 6’4” and weighs north of 200 pounds. Do the Oilers need to dump one of the two in exchange for an upgrade in size down the middle?

To answer that question, I decided to go back through all the teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the NHL lockout, and check the size of their top three centres. These centres were then ranked by total ice-time and designated first, second or third line. Here’s the list:

Team Season First Line Height Weight Second Line Height Weight Third Line Height Weight Avg. Height Avg. Weight
Boston 2010-11 David Krejci 72 188 Patrice Bergeron 74 194 Chris Kelly 72 198 73 193
Vancouver 2010-11 Ryan Kesler 74 202 Henrik Sedin 74 188 Maxim Lapierre 74 207 74 199
Chicago 2009-10 Jonathan Toews 74 208 Dave Bolland 72 184 Patrick Sharp 73 199 73 197
Philadelphia 2009-10 Mike Richards 71 199 Claude Giroux 71 172 Jeff Carter 76 199 73 190
Pittsburgh 2008-09 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Detroit 2008-09 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Detroit 2007-08 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Pittsburgh 2007-08 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Anaheim 2006-07 Ryan Getzlaf 76 221 Samuel Pahlsson 72 202 Andy McDonald 71 185 73 203
Ottawa 2006-07 Jason Spezza 75 216 Mike Fisher 73 208 Antoine Vermette 73 198 74 207
Carolina 2005-06 Rod Brind'Amour 73 205 Eric Staal 76 205 Doug Weight 71 202 73 204
Edmonton 2005-06 Shawn Horcoff 73 207 Mike Peca 71 183 Jarret Stoll 73 213 72 201
Average 2005-11 First Line 6'1" 203 Second Line 6'1" 194 Third Line 6'1" 203 6'1" 200

One point of interest before I get into the size numbers is how ice-time arranges these players. In many cases, the guy centering a team’s second scoring line finishes third in total ice-time – Mike Peca in 2006, Samuel Pahlsson in 2007 and Dave Bolland in 2010 are a few of the unlikely “second” line guys.

Getting back to the main point, the average top-nine centre on a Stanley Cup finalist over the last six seasons isn’t especially big by NHL standards: 6’1”, 200lbs. Pittsburgh’s trio is the biggest on the record here, coming in at a combined average of 6’2” and 205lbs; their opponents in Detroit are the smallest of the group at an average of 5’11”, 197lbs.

The Oilers top three centres today – Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Shawn Horcoff – come in at an average of 6’, 192lbs, just slightly shorter and lighter than average. Horcoff and Gagner, listed at 207 and 195 pounds respectively, are both right around the league average; the still-developing Nugent-Hopkins is definitely on the slight side, listed at just 175 pounds. He’ll put on more weight as he gets older, and the Oilers should be right around the average of our group of finalists when he does so.

Looking at the list above, I don’t see a lot of reason why the Oilers couldn’t contend down the road with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner on the roster. A slightly older Gagner in his prime might be a solid match for a player like Doug Weight, Andy McDonald, or Valtteri Filppula – he’d be a reasonably good fit as the centre of the secondary scoring line. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps developing as hoped, he might be able to fill the role of a Krecji or a Datsyuk/Zetterberg.

Leaving aside Detroit and Boston – teams that didn’t really have much snarl up the middle when they went to the finals – most of these teams had a hard-nosed guy to complement the two scorers. It’s the role Mike Peca in 2006, Mike Fisher in 2007, Jordan Staal in 2008 and 2009, and Dave Bolland in 2010 all played for their teams. If the Oilers hang on to both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line.

Of course, other changes may be needed. Detroit has some beefy wingers, and Boston was famous for the grit (personified by Milan Lucic) and, umm, personality (personified by Brad Marchand) on their wings last season. I’ll be doing this same comparison between Edmonton and Stanley Cup Finalists, only focused on the other forward positions, in the near future.

But for right now, I think there’s an obvious conclusion: the Oilers shouldn’t be in a rush to move Sam Gagner down the line because they’re too small up the middle. Stanley Cup history shows plainly that teams can win with two centres – and in Detroit’s case even three – of below-average NHL size.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#101 book¡e
April 20 2012, 10:13PM
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JohnS wrote:

Edmonton is a very weak team, I could play second line center for Edmonton

Shut up Shremp, you had your chance - stop trolling here and get back to the SEL.

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#102 Oiler Al
April 20 2012, 11:05PM
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Have been saying this for 2 years now... Gagner needs to beef up muscle wise... get stronger.. I know he's only 22, but he has been in the league for what 5 yrs now. There are small guys that play bigger and hes not one of them. He needs to go to Gary Roberts school of hard knocks [ ala. Steve Stamkos]. Gagner is not hard player on boards, and is always sitting on his butt. He also gets thrown out of the face off circle more than any other center in the NHL>. Giroux is 15 lbs smaller and plays a solid game. Look at Marchand [ Boston ], tough as nails... small guy. Its in your head,, and thats something Gagners hasnt got on to . and he may never... Also get rid of that Pee Wee hockey stick. PS.. Mind you he plays tougher than Hemsky and Horcoff, who are both over 6' , and Horcoff is over 200 lbs.At the end, as much has Ive liked Gagner, I would trade him for the right deal.

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#104 jack
April 20 2012, 11:22PM
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go after parise, the first two lines would look like this hall hopkins eberle hemsky parise yakupov pajarvi lander hartikainen petrell horcs and sign someone that can hit

we will have two great lines and the alpha males can be on seperate lines

sign one of washingtons goalies as a back up to dubey

so long gagner, jones, bellanger smyth ect

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#105 jack
April 20 2012, 11:24PM
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gagner is not really one of our biggest players on our team, just to let everyone know, his height and weight are bs

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#106 Wanyes bastard child
April 20 2012, 11:40PM
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jack wrote:

gagner is not really one of our biggest players on our team, just to let everyone know, his height and weight are bs

Really??? And your just telling us now? ... dang :(

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#108 Wax Man Riley
April 21 2012, 03:59AM
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DSF wrote:

Gagner IS Kyle Wellwood.

Nothing less...nothing more.

Championship teams don't have Kyle Wellwood as their second line centre.

Gagner is bigger, younger, and has scored the exact same number of points in 84 less games.

At least he is better than Kyle Wellwood

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#109 Saytalk
April 21 2012, 06:27AM
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The issue is toughness and intensity, not height and weight. Toughness and intensity are a lot harder to measure, but I'm sure there are a few stats out there that can provide some indication? (Hits given / hits received? Takeaways / giveaways? Maybe hook these guys up to a heart rate monitor during the games?)

Look at Paajarvi. He's 6'3" and 200 pounds but he's also the softest player on the team.

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#110 Devoknows
April 21 2012, 07:32AM
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Such an interesting article UNTIL you mentioned Horcoffs name. This guy is a 4th liner at best Mind you he could start the season as 3rd line center, cause he does find a way to keep up to the "pace" for the first 10-15 games then he's DONE!

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#111 Spydyr
April 21 2012, 07:46AM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Gagner played most with Hemsky.

Hall and Ebs played most with Nuge.

Source: Behindthenet.ca

The game he got 8 points was with Hall and Ebs......one of these things is not like the others.

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#112 a lg dubl dubl
April 21 2012, 08:18AM
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Off topic, but with the wings gettin the boot by the Preds I wonder if Babcock will be back behind the bench.

NugeforCalder!!

Gagner is fine, I'd love to how him and Yakupov play together on the 2nd line behind Hall, Eberle and Nuge.

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#113 michael
April 21 2012, 08:25AM
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@Saytalk. The book is not yet complete on MP. Soft? He is still adapting to the North American game. He hasn't had the benefit of the CHL to develop the kind of game that we expect from a player of his skill and size. From my perspective I think we need to give him the same time that we are giving Hartsy. Given that Hartsy has more of the physicallity in his game already. A couple of seasons in the trenchs of the AHL should hone MP game to a more NHL style. Be patient. I think he'll be a 20-25 goal 2cd line winger.

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#114 Aaron
April 21 2012, 09:11AM
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"Looking at the list above, I don’t see a lot of reason why the Oilers couldn’t contend down the road with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner on the roster. A slightly older Gagner in his prime might be a solid match for a player like Doug Weight, Andy McDonald, or Valtteri Filppula – he’d be a reasonably good fit as the centre of the secondary scoring line. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps developing as hoped, he might be able to fill the role of a Krecji or a Datsyuk/Zetterberg."

JW this whole article feels pretty askew. There's not alot of value in your C-size comparative table really...there's so many other factors and so much more context needed to make the claim that we can be a future contender with RNH and Sam at 1-2. In one really commonsense way you're right, sure it COULD work that those two could be 1-2 C on a cup team - but not without an extraordinary upgrade at every other position on the roster - almost every spot.

Now I'm not saying that replacing Sam with, say, J. Staal is a magic wand for the whole team at all, but wouldn't this massive team-wide upgrade process benefit from having a larger, grittier, more consistent points-wise, better FO and PK guy?

Sam is young, has great vision, a great work ethic, and above average skills. But he has average speed, barely average size, below average PK and FO, an OK shot, is rarely physical and requires tougher, or more experienced, or faster, or more skilled (read: better in some significant way) players to open space for him out there to be his effective creative playmaker best. Maybe he elevates his game and proves really effective with elite talents like Yak and Hall stapled to his wings.

But moving forward an upgrade at #2 C would allow us way more flexibility- you could try younger players still carving out their role on the wing (MP, Harski, Pitlick), you could relieve Horc of a bunch more ice time...lots more room to manouever instead of needing to tie the very best wingers to Sam at all times. My two bits.

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#115 Aaron
April 21 2012, 09:12AM
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@Aaron

Upgrade at every slot but the top line I mean...

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#116 Saytalk
April 21 2012, 09:16AM
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@michael

The same could be said of Omark. So how long do we wait for these guys to adapt to the North American game? By the time they reach age 25? By the time they become waiver eligible? By the time they get tired of waiting for a decent shot, complain about it and then go to the KHL/SEL? Every player, regardless of where he played his junior career, has to show a steady uptrend towards becoming an NHL player; otherwise we should trade him and make room for better assets.

I'm okay with keeping Paajarvi in the AHL for a few seasons to see how he pans out, but I'm tired of other posters here that continually whine for Omark and/or Paajarvi to get top-6 minutes on the Oilers (centered by Lander no less; there is some sort of magical Tre Kroner line that dominates the league in their fantasies). An NHL club should not run like a developmental team, the Oilers had that in the 2010-11 season and it was outright embarassing.

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#118 Aaron
April 21 2012, 10:06AM
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@Jonathan Willis

@JW

Thanks for the clarifications, which as you say were there in the original article. I don't think that thinking we need more talented size through the line up is 'misguided', but I do agree you don't deal Gagner for some random coke machine.

If we make no substantial changes at forward, other than say losing Hordi, etc., using your line construction logic we'd have something like this:

Hall-Nuge- Ebs (power offence)

Smyth/MP/Harski -Horc- Jones/Lander/Petrell (primary D line)

Yak - Gagner - Hemmer (secondary offence)

Smyth/MP/Eager/Harski -Lander/Belanger - Jones/Petrell (energy/crash/leftovers...)

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#119 Aaron
April 21 2012, 10:11AM
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@Aaron

self-reply!

the offensive lines need a bit more beef in one of the Gagner/Hemmer slots

That D line looks barely 'OK'

The fourth line could be as much of a black hole as it was last year

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#120 Aaron
April 21 2012, 10:48AM
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Oiler Al wrote:

Have been saying this for 2 years now... Gagner needs to beef up muscle wise... get stronger.. I know he's only 22, but he has been in the league for what 5 yrs now. There are small guys that play bigger and hes not one of them. He needs to go to Gary Roberts school of hard knocks [ ala. Steve Stamkos]. Gagner is not hard player on boards, and is always sitting on his butt. He also gets thrown out of the face off circle more than any other center in the NHL>. Giroux is 15 lbs smaller and plays a solid game. Look at Marchand [ Boston ], tough as nails... small guy. Its in your head,, and thats something Gagners hasnt got on to . and he may never... Also get rid of that Pee Wee hockey stick. PS.. Mind you he plays tougher than Hemsky and Horcoff, who are both over 6' , and Horcoff is over 200 lbs.At the end, as much has Ive liked Gagner, I would trade him for the right deal.

BINGO!!!

Perfectly said. It's not the size issue with Ganger and I think we clump grit, endurance and most importantly balance into the word "big". Big does not guarantee these talents in such players. It's more common in big players to have traits like balance ala Dustin Penner however as we have seen with Penner, grit and endurance was not present.

Ganger has determination however he displays little to no balance with the puck. He gets knocked off or brushed off the puck far too easily to grind it out along the boards or to make a strong move to the net.

I'd move Ganger for a center who displays these talents even if said player is less talented offensively.

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#121 FastOil
April 21 2012, 11:45AM
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Aaron wrote:

BINGO!!!

Perfectly said. It's not the size issue with Ganger and I think we clump grit, endurance and most importantly balance into the word "big". Big does not guarantee these talents in such players. It's more common in big players to have traits like balance ala Dustin Penner however as we have seen with Penner, grit and endurance was not present.

Ganger has determination however he displays little to no balance with the puck. He gets knocked off or brushed off the puck far too easily to grind it out along the boards or to make a strong move to the net.

I'd move Ganger for a center who displays these talents even if said player is less talented offensively.

To me it comes down to skating. No surpise I guess given the name I chose. Skating is more than speed, as said it's having balance, agility (quick turns/edges),the ability to at least gain speed quickly even if the top end isn't blazing fast. Moreau and Grier could really motor if they had half the rink to get going.

As far as I can see, the great small players typically skate well. If a small player can't accelerate away from or outmanoeuvre bigger players, especially in the corners, or keep their balance, how can they consistently win battles? The advantage a small player has and needs is to be quicker than the bigger bodies.

It is the essence of Schremp's failure, and also the Oiler's failure with Omark. Linus can battle for the puck and is a rugged little player. We have our Marchand right now. He probably could put up as good a fight as Hordichuk as well ;)

If given the shot he would outclass Jones in a hurry, and probably do more actual effective hitting. He might also get some assists meaning his linemates could score as well. Unfortunately I think he will be a top notch Oiler killer.

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#122 Vedran
April 22 2012, 12:31PM
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Looks to me Flyers top two centers are Danny Briere (5’10”) and Claude Giroux (5’11”)……are they having issues with size?

It takes time to develop so let be happy with what we have.

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