Who knows — maybe size does matter.
The San Jose Sharks have built a roster blessed with size combined with enough speed and grit to excel in the ridiculously-competitive Western Conference. Newcomers Brent Burns (acquired via trade with the Minnesota Wild), Michal Handzus (free agency), Martin Havlat (trade with Minnesota), Andrew Murray (free agency), and Jim Vandermeer (free agency) add to a squad that lists just four players under six feet tall: Ben Ferriero, Torrey Mitchell, Joe Pavelski, and Dan Boyle — all listed at 5’11”. Perhaps more importantly, just three players are reported at under 195 pounds: Mitchell, Boyle and Tommy Wingels.
By contrast, the division-rival Los Angeles Kings also list just four players under 6′ tall, but have seven players under 195 pounds. The Cup runner-up Vancouver Canucks have eight players under the weight benchmark; the Detroit Red Wings, nine. Point being, the Sharks appear to employ a philosophy that involves carrying larger, stronger players as a general rule than most NHL teams. It’s by no means statistically relevant and cannot reliably be considered quod erat demonstrantum, but the Cup-champion Boston Bruins have just four players under 6′ tall and four under 195 pounds.
Nobody exemplifies the premium on size better than Joe Thornton. Listed at 6’4″ and 230 pounds, “Jumbo” Joe has been one of the top centers in the NHL for over a decade. A veritable horse in the low slot, Thornton creates space for the team’s pure snipers, an attribute that cannot be overstated in terms of its importance with respect to defensing a perennially high-octane offense. Thornton is not a natural goal-scorer, having cracked 30 goals just twice in his career (none since 2002-03), but his ability to take up space and remain in prime areas of the ice open up lanes, which therefore elevates his assist totals. Thornton has not registered fewer than 46 assists in any given season since 2001-02.
Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson executed a relatively-risky strategy of making significant roster changes this off-season to a team that clearly was already in the top-tier of the NHL, as evidenced by their 48-25-9 (105 points) regular-season record and run to the Western Conference finals. Symbolically, their biggest acquisition was — literally and figuratively — quite large. Brent Burns and his 6’5″, 219-pound frame were added to the defense, resurrecting the days when the 6’4″, 220-pound Rob Blake patrolled the blue line for San Jose in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Blake was a relative rarity in the NHL during his heyday, a tall, highly-skilled physical defenseman whose speed was not a liability and to whom the “C” was granted, numerous times, during his career. Seven times an All Star, Blake won the Norris Trophy in 1997-98 while with the Los Angeles Kings. Top-pairing defenseman with size have since become more commonplace in the NHL and include such players as Dion Phaneuf (Toronto), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg), Shea Weber (Nashville), Brent Seabrook (Chicago), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), Erik Johnson (Colorado), and the “Big Z” himself: Zdeno Chara (Boston).
With that said, prized-acquisition Brent Burns fits the mold. Not only is he one of the tallest players in the league, but has speed as well and is known for being a strong skater. The knocks on him have been consistency, over-aggressiveness and not consistently using his size to his advantage. However, Burns is still just 26 years old, poised to enter his prime within the next few years. Discipline, especially under the tutelage of head coach Todd McLellan, can be taught. Size cannot.
On a lesser stage, the pickup of Michal Handzus further demonstrates San Jose’s commitment to building a bigger, stronger roster than their primary Western conference rivals. At 6’4″ and 219 pounds, Handzus is adept as a net-presence and penalty-killer, and can also play on a power play unit as required. Never a strong skater to begin with, Hanzus’ speed has continued to degrade due to injuries and the advancement of time. At the age of 34, it is now a liability. However, he’s a smart positional player who can overcome that weakness, given the right role. In San Jose, a third-line slot and ample time on the penalty kill should fit like a glove. Although not likely to be used in a primary scoring capacity, Handzus registered 20 goals in 2009-10, demonstrating that the hand/eye coordination is still there. Short stints in a top-six role aren’t out of the question if injuries or other needs dictate.
With the rise of the young Los Angeles Kings in the division, coupled with the sheer speed and play-making capabilities of teams like Vancouver and Detroit, the Sharks appeared to believe they needed to build a better mousetrap. Being bigger and stronger than the opponent is one way to do just that. Retaining elite players such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and nurturing emerging stars Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Antti Niemi is another. Put it all together and they may be able to finally take that elusive next step.