How Big Do Top-Six Forwards Need To Be?

Pavel Datsyuk, Dan4th Nicholas/Wikimedia Commons

How big should a group of top-six forwards be for a team hoping to make a playoff splash?

Back in April, I asked whether Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner were too small to co-exist on an Oilers team contending for the Stanley Cup. Looking at Stanley Cup Finalists in the post-lockout world, the answer was a clear “no.”

However, what wasn’t answered in that piece was whether a team could win with smaller centers and smaller wingers in the top-six. That’s the question I want to look at today.

To answer it, I’ve looked up the top-six forward for every team to make it to the Conference Finals in the last five seasons – a group of 20 clubs. Then I took their top-six forwards (ranked by total minutes played in the playoffs that year) and ranked them by size. “Size” was determined by multiplying height and weight together; here’s the list:

I’m going to touch on a few things that struck me as interesting before I get into where the Oilers would rank on that list.

  • The biggest teams, by far, are the two San Jose Sharks clubs that made it to the Western Conference Finals. On the 2010 team, only Joe Pavelski came in at less than 6’, 200lbs (5’11”, 195lbs) and four of their top six forwards were 6’2”, 220lbs or bigger.
  • Detroit’s position on this list surprised me, since I typically have thought of them as a smaller team. The secret is weight – for instance, the 2008 Stanley Cup team had just one top-six forward taller than 6’ (Mikael Samuelsson, with Johan Franzen missed the cut thanks to injury) but the lightest guy was Valtteri Filppula, at 195lbs. Height-wise, only the 2010 Montreal Canadiens were shorter than Detroit.
  • That 2010 Canadiens team – this was the club that rode Jaroslav Halak past Washington and Pittsburgh – was tiny up front. Their top-three forwards were Brian Gionta (5’7”, 173lbs), Scott Gomez (5’11”, 198lbs) and Mike Cammalleri (5’9”, 190lbs); of their top-six, nobody cracked the 6’ mark and only Andrei Kostitsyn was over 200lbs.
  • The 2009 and 2010 Chicago Blackhawks are interesting teams for Oilers fans. Kane and Toews were both healthy in 2009 (Kane missed a single game) but Toews just barely made the top-six forwards and Kane didn’t. Neither saw any penalty-killing time and Dave Bolland was preferred at even-strength to Toews that year. That was the coaching staff bringing those players along slowly – both guys saw twice as much usage in the offensive zone as they did in the defensive zone because the offensive talent was there but the total game was still developing (Bolland, in contrast, saw more than twice as many defensive zone draws as offensive zone draws). The next year – the year Chicago won it all – both players still saw far more offensive work than defensive work, but they were trusted with more ice-time (almost two minutes more per game at even-strength) and Toews took on a major penalty-killing role.
  • The Flyers have a reputation for liking big, beefy forwards but the 2010 squad – the most successful playoff edition of the team since the lockout – had just one relatively big guy; Scott Hartnell at 6’2”, 210 lbs. Nobody else on the club was north of 200lbs.

Here’s the same list again, but with last year’s Oilers (ranked by total minutes played) and a 2013 version of the Oilers. The 2013 version is less about what the team will be next year (I’d be shocked if both Smyth and Horcoff fell out of the top-six, particularly given their penchant for being healthy while other guys get hurt) and more about the long-term projected future of the team.

Last year’s group is a little on the small side, but not outrageously so; Horcoff and Smyth both have good size, as does Jones, and none of the players are especially tiny. The problem is the long-term group. Height isn’t as big an issue as it’s made out to be – the team is a hair behind the 2008, 2010, and 2011 Cup winners in that department – but weight is where the team falls behind. Only Hall and Gagner are north of 190lbs; not one player is bigger than 200lbs. Going back to the 2008 Detroit team, the lightest guy on the club (Valterri Filppula at 6’, 195lbs) would be the heaviest of this top-six.

On the other hand, one thing we aren’t penciling in here is growth as these players get older, something that sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. Taylor Hall was listed at 6’, 182lbs in his draft year; two years later those numbers are 6’1”, 194lbs. On the other hand, Sam Gagner was listed at 5’11”, 191lbs when the Oilers signed him to his entry-level deal; today he’s listed at 5’11”, 195lbs. Other players have made bigger jumps than Hall (who may not be done yet) – Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos are both listed more than 20lbs heavier now than they were on draft day.

It really wouldn’t take much for the Oilers to make a big jump on this list. Pencil in 20 extra pounds between Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov and swap out Hemsky for a Mikhail Samuelsson-type and suddenly the Oilers have a bigger top-six than the Bruins’ 2010 team.

The point? Like most everyone else, I’d like to see the Oilers’ top-six forward group be a little bigger than it is. I just don’t want to see that improvement in size come at a major cost in terms of skill – and looking at what other teams have won with, I don’t think it needs to.

Other posts by Jonathan Willis

  • yawto

    There are plenty of fist line players with fantastic careers who are not huge. Burnaby Joe was not a huge man but managed to get it done year after year after year.

  • GiftedGregerius

    Great article JW,

    I believe that size should not be the sole indicator of the strength of a player or a team. Look at guys like Clutterbuck, listed 5’11” and 213 lbs, or Tootoo, listed 5’9″ 199 lbs. Neither of these guys would be considered as physically monsterous, but they sure play like monsters, and I think anybody would want a guy like that on your team. Another factor that should be given preference to physical size is the will to get the puck. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a perfect example of this intangiable, he may be built a little smaller but no one can doubt his will or ability to take the puck away from the oposition.

    I constantly read comments saying we need more size in our front 6 players, and that is all well and good, but what do you get when you have size and no desire to be a monster, or will to get the puck back? …. ….. You get Dustin Penner, so I will take grit and desire over size any day of the week, and now the Oilers have that in spades!

    • geoilersgist

      Dustin Penner is probably not a good example especially since he just won his second stanley cup and was great in the playoffs but I know what your saying. My examples would be Pouliot and JFJ types.

  • geoilersgist

    Great read JW. This is what I am usually kind of thinking when I hear someone say the Oilers are small. Give the kids a chance to grow up. Will be interesting to see where they rank once Yakupov is 20 years old

  • geoilersgist

    Very interesting JW. I think all the young players will grow and I expect to see more physicality from Hall and ultimately Yak. I would like to see one power forward in the top six, probably to replace Hemsky at some point.
    We clearly need more size and toughness in the bottom six. It would help to get Hartikainen in the Top 9 and for RK to get more hitting out of Eager and Jones, and give Hordy a chance to play his role.

    • Dipstick

      Tambellini would be wise to not give any RFAs offer sheets at this time. He will need to sign some very valuable players to value contracts in the next three years. Pay back can be a B!tch.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    Is there an unspoken understanding in hockey that if you’re under 6′ you’re just allowed to list yourself as 5’11? No way Gagner is taller than 5’9.

  • geoilersgist

    Is it possible to go back one more year? I would like to see how the size of the current Oilers stacks up against the size of the team that went to the SCF in 2006?

  • GiftedGregerius


    It is nice that a guy can finally turn it on in the playoffs, and prove that he is not a complete “shower”, but what did he do during the 82 game regular season? I seem to remember LA fans, and media complaining that LA got fleeced when they traded for Penner. I would rather have a guy who brings it EVERY night. That is how you get to the playoffs, where the extra baggage (i.e. Penner) can finally show they can play.

    • When did he start playing better?? When they changed coaches. Consistently scores 20 goals a season until this season(which he was going through a divorce), and scored 30 goals on sh*tty Oiler team. Winning one Stanley Cup being a sh*tty player maybe but two…. not likely. Your just hating on a guy because he is big and doesn’t hit. But he puts up points is reliable defensively. Better than over half the guys the oilers have right now. And as Far as guys bringing it every night, you might as well get rid of half the Oilers right now because they sure don’t.

      • Hair bag

        Sorry @Dman09 but I have to agree with GG on this one…I like Penner and I think he has great talent and has puts up decent stats because of it. But I have watched him both live and on the tube for 4years and he doesn’t have the intensity/drive to bring it every night consistently – it’s just not in him! He will give you 20 great games a year leaving you to think that he maybe he’s finally breaking out but then he has those 50sh*t games a year where he is crap, literally looks like he doesn’t want to be on the ice and you curse him in frustration. Maybe 10 avg games but his low’s leave not only the fans wanting more but also his coach’s and most importantly his team mates. It can’t be understated how an inconsistent performer like Penner brings his team down during the regular season when you need one of your talented guys to step up and he is never anywhere to be found. I never played great hockey but when I played you always got motivation from the guys who worked their asses off, it made you want to work harder as a teammate – the guys like Penner made you feel like why the hell should I put out for this guy when he never puts out for us…

  • I don’t think height is that important for top 6 forwards. What is important is strenth and balance. Being able to win puck battles and stay on your feet is of huge importance. Usually this strength is much more aligned with weight then height. In a playoff series the ability to put weight on the other team, to win puck battles, and to outhit them certainly takes its toll.

    I am actually surprised that Gagner is listed at 195 lbs. It is not uncommon for atheletes to exagerate both their height and weight. Especially while waiting to be drafted or if they are constantly dogged about being too small.

    While neither Hall or Yak are huge players they are certainly average sized and strong for their size. I agree would like to see one more descent sized winger in top 6. possibly that will be Paajarvi.

    With the head shot ruel coming into effect height can actually be seen as a disadvatage for physical players as it is hard not to hit the hear when you are a foot taller then the player you are hitting.

    Where height is more important is on defence where reach is a huge factor in how hard it is to go around you.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Just “need to be” better than your opponent across from you most nights. Size is important when you only have one tool in the toolbox, like Horc and Gags.[outside of one night during the 82 gm season] Then, size is everything.

    Oh look, cold beer.

  • It was actually gagner’s weight that shocked me more then his height. I am 5’10” and fluctuate between 190 and 205 lbs. In my picture I would be between 190 and 195 lbs. I am muscualr and get asked at least once a week if I am on steroids. (I am not)

    Gagner is listed at 1″ taller then me. If he is heavier then me he should look fairly stocky. From the pics i have seen he does not.

    This would be even weirder if he was 5’9″ and weighed that amount. I would have guessed he was 5’10” and between 175 and 180lbs.

      • justDOit

        Actually, I’ve met Gagner too. He appeared to me in his true form, a green, large-headed alien from the planet Zetox. I saved his life, and in turn he dedicated himself to helping me with his super powers when ever he can.

        His real height is 2′ 6″.

    • Wax Man Riley

      Maybe, but athletes have a different body type since they must be quick and agile along with being strong. The bulk that comes with weight training can slow a player down.

      I’ve seen smaller guys lifting insane amounts. Ever see a gymnast? No bulk at all.

  • Great article to rtead of, JW.

    I am in agreement that size/height is not really the indicator as it should be more so about grit and determination.

    IMO, I like that saying that….it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight within the dog.

    Samwise may not be huge but he tries and I like that. The very same of the others like Hall, Eberle, Nuge, Smyth, Horcoff etc.

    I would love to see more of that in Hemsky though he does play tough a lot, but I say this more so about Eager, Jones, Petrell, Belanger, etc.

    I also believe that speed and skill outweighs height and size,…unless one has all of these within.

    Defence is must position for having strength, size/height, along with skating abilityand puck saaviness.

  • vetinari

    I think toughness ranks higher than size when assessing players… guys like Theo Fleury and Pat Verbeek made out fine in the old “rock ’em, sock ’em” days because they were tough as nails and just as likely to plant the butt end of a stick in your rib cage if you tried to charge them.

  • Wax Man Riley

    I agree on players having toughness, determination, meanness, great work ethic, spirit and grit, etc, more so than worrying of size, height alone.

    In the older days it was those nasty small guys like Fleury, Ken Linseman,Mark Lamb, etc, who played their guts out and they all won Stanley Cups during their time.

    Meanness was awesome back then and no one used this much better to advantage than Glenn Anderson (albeit a timy bit bigger player) with speed and skill to boot.

    The kids on the Oilers have not really been pushed around lately, they just had injuries of accident and/or not thinking. Like Hall getting in a fight or not watching heads up, Nuge losing his skate and hitting the boards on his own, etc.

    These are kids still growing anyways. Already can see that Yakupov isnt too big now but he is stocky and he too will grow a fair bit bigger as well.

  • Wax Man Riley

    From last years regular season:
    Top 30 Point Getters- under 6′ and 200 lbs:
    Grioux,St. Louis, Parise, Eberle, Whitney, Zetterberg. [ thats 6 players or 20% of the List]

    Top 60 Point Getters – under 6″ and 200 lbs:
    Datsyuk, Kane, Alfredson, Desharnais, Pavelski
    Thats another 5 players.

    So out of the top 60 points getters 11 fall under this criteria.. or 18%,
    These guys are skill players and not known for playing though.
    Just a taught.

  • Wax Man Riley

    As you pointed out JW age is a big factor in all this. Gagner and Eberle for eg. probably won’t add much weight. Hall will probably top out around 200 in a couple years and at 6’1″ RNH will end up at 190 min.

    The flip side to the whole size fascination is speed. You wouldn’t want Hall adding weight at the expense of losing his ability to blow the doors off Bieksa

  • Wax Man Riley

    Haven’t read it yet, but my education from Oilers Nation commenters says that if you aren’t 6’2″+ and 210+lbs, you cannot be a 1st or second line center. Also, the only way to win is to have a “Lucic-type” roster. They must be big, mean and skilled. Not Lucic, mind you, but “Lucic-type.”

    Now, back to that article…

  • Spydyr

    How can you tell the Oilers have been out of the playoffs 6 years now?

    People quoting stats from the regular season.

    The playoffs are a whole new game.

    For me all that matters is the Cup the rest is window dressing.

    After watching a player like Gagner for 4 years now and playoff hockey for over 40 years.It is easy to tell he will get owned in the playoffs.

    Get a real second line centre if you want the Cup.

    It also takes one of the top goalies that playoff year and a stud on defence.All missing from the Oilers at the present time.

  • Spydyr

    NHL teams seem to inflate the height and weight of thier smaller players. It would not shock me if Gagner was getting a friendly bump of an inch and a few pounds.

    JW – great article. I found your conclusion on weight vs height being very interesting. I can see where weight would actually be a better indicator as it would likely be a better proxy for strength.

    And on that note, the Oilers clearly have some work to do on thier top 9. Smyth is an older player and shouldn’t be counted on as “the beef” of the top 9. Horcoff is one amnesty buy-out away from disappearing and they should be selling high on Jones.

    That does bode well for Pitlick (6’2″ 195 and filling out), and Hartikainen (6’1″ 215)

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    As others have noted… height/weight does not necessarily equal toughness… not only can “smaller players” have more “truculence” but “bigger players” can have less…

    note the Sedin twins on there rank pretty high (in height if not weight) but few would count them as “tough”

    also… regarding official height/weight listed… i just figure it is best to assume Cuban Baseball rules are in effect…

    just like you should assume a Cuban ball player is 2-3 years older than he says he is, take 5-10% off a hockey player’s height and weight.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    @ #25 Spydyr makes an excellent point that I really hadn’t considered before regarding Gagner:

    Spydyr said: “The playoffs are a whole new game……For me all that matters is the Cup the rest is window dressing.After watching a player like Gagner for 4 years now and playoff hockey for over 40 years.It is easy to tell he will get owned in the playoffs”

    No way to know for sure but my intuition tells me Spydyr is probably right about this. One more reason (if intuition is a reason) I’d like to see Gagner showcased (given easy minutes and PP time) so as to bring good value at the trade deadline.

    1) Bigger/Heavier usually means stronger and harder to play against…more likely to wear you down.
    2) Bigger/Heavier usually means less injury prone
    3) The “good” small tough guys are usually sinue (muscular/grisely) “little ball of hate” type of guys with big mental toughness

    Having said all that, I once saw Bernie Nichols in his street clothes and he was freakishly skinny. So I guess a team can afford to have all body types…just not too many of any one type?

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    “After watching a player like Gagner for 4 years now and playoff hockey for over 40 years.It is easy to tell he will get owned in the playoffs.”

    Most insightful post I’ve read here in a while.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Really good article by Jonathan Willis. Helps to put some analytics/numbers to the widely held belief that you have to be big to win.

    It would appear that while bigger/heavier may be better, you don’t have to be huge ( like San Jose), in fact you really don’t have to be much bigger than the Oilers are now..perhaps just a little bigger…

    Very interesting note about the 2009 and 2010 Chicago Blackhawks use of Toews and Kane with sheltered minutes much of it outside of the top six and then winning the cup the next year wherein “both players still saw far more offensive work than defensive work, but they were trusted with more ice-time (almost two minutes more per game at even-strength) and Toews took on a major penalty-killing role.”

    Hall and Ebbs 2013?