Martin St. Louis. Mike Cammalleri. Brian Gionta. Steve Sullivan. Paul Kariya. Theo Fleury. Marcel Dionne. All these players have two things in common: their height (or lack thereof) and their skill. With the exception of Dionne (from another era), each of them experienced doubt that their skill could overcome their shortcomings. But given the chance, each became a consistent point-producer.
In order for a short guy to make it to pro hockey, he has to have some skill. Clearly a 5’7” physical player will probably be outplayed by a similar player over 6’. These small guys usually have tons of speed, very good hands and vision and a knack for the net. They create space, rarely place themselves in harm’s way and make their teammates better. But they can only do so much.
The Caps have a few good small guys. Keith Aucoin, Chris Bourque and Mathieu Perreault are all diminutive but packed with skill and hockey smarts. At the AHL level, they excel. Their offensive up-side would lead people to believe they can contribute at the NHL level. Eventually, they earn a call-up to the big team. Then they’re faced with a major obstacle.
AHL call-ups are rarely dropped on a top-two line. They’re relegated to third or forth line minutes, and more importantly, third or fourth line teammates. In the AHL, these players are teamed with skilled players who may have the size and hockey-sense, but a lack of defensive ability or some other trait preventing them from making the jump. These small guys are used to making passes to where teammates should be (or getting there themselves). Playing with 4th line guys in the NHL, that hockey sense in missing; they put up lackluster numbers and are sent back down.
Last year, there were 64 players 5’10” or shorter and who played a minimum 50 games last season in the NHL. Of those players, 34 (53%) had produced a +50 point season at some time in their careers. 11 players (17%) had produced at least 1 season in which their points exceeded their games played. The group also included two 50 goal scorers and three 100 point scorers. For the most part, these players took some time to catch on in the NHL (with some obvious exceptions…Paul Kariya anyone?). All they needed was a chance to play with similarly skilled players and log some quality ice time.