Often deemed too small by NHL scouts and executives, undersized players frequently have a harder time breaking into the National Hockey League. Many are overlooked and go undrafted since they do not fit the traditional mould of a professional hockey player. However, smaller players have found their way into the NHL and made history. Smaller players like Martin St. Louis, Theo Fleury, Rod Gilbert, Marcel Dionne, Ted Lindsay, and Henri Richard were all of smaller stature, but pushed the boundaries and became essential to their teams and transformed NHL standards.
Below are ten of the smallest hockey players, all under 5-foot-10 that have proven to be successful in the NHL, despite the challenge of being undersized.
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
Vital statistics: 5-foot-7, 165 pounds
The 39th-overall selection in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has impressed early in his career as a Chicago Blackhawk. Alex DeBrincat was a player who many said he wouldn’t make it due to his height. It’s safe to say he’s proved them wrong.
He broke into the league for the 2017-18 season, scoring 28 goals, adding 24 assists for 52 points. His sophomore campaign was even better, putting up 41 goals, 35 assists and 76 points. Then after a bit of a down season where he only recorded 18 goals, 27 assists, and 45 points, he put up his second 30-goal season in 2020-21 in only 52 games. If the season would have been the normal 82 games, he probably would have hit 40 goals for the second time in his career.
He was proving himself even before hitting the NHL, as he excelled with the OHL’s Erie Otters. With the team, he won numerous accolades, including CHL player of the year, OHL most outstanding player, CHL and OHL rookie of the year, and many more. The list of awards isn’t small at all.
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Vital statistics: 5-foot-9, 181 pounds
Brad Marchand was drafted 71st overall by the Boston Bruins in 2006 and joined the team in 2008. He played a significant part in the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup win, as he scored 19 points (11 goals, eight assists) in 25 playoff games during those playoffs.
Marchand seems to get better every season, with 2018-19 setting career highs in points, with 100. He collected 36 goals and 64 assists to hit the century mark for the first time in his career. He was a big part of the Bruins playoff run again in that campaign, helping the team reach the Stanley Cup Final and leading the playoffs in points (23) before the team fell to the St. Louis Blues. Since then, he has put up two more 20-goal seasons and has eclipsed the 60-point plateau two more times as well.
The winger has been suspended a number of times for his edgier plays. But by no means has this two-way forward changed his game due to his smaller stature.
Viktor Arvidsson, Los Angeles Kings
Vital statistics: 5-foot-9, 181 pounds
Arvidsson was drafted by the Predators 112th overall in 2014 after playing with Skellefteå AIK of the Swedish Hockey League. He signed his entry-level contract with the Predators that July and became a full-time NHLer in the 2016-17 season.
Since joining the Predators, he has emerged as a key player, putting up 61 points in both of his first two full NHL seasons. In 2018-19, he set a new career-high in goals with 34, despite playing just 58 games. He has regressed offensively in the last two campaigns recording only 25 goals in 107 games but will get a chance to turn it around in a new city next season. Now part of the Los Angeles Kings, he will attempt to get back to his goal-scoring ways with Anze Kopitar or Phillip Danault as his centerman.
Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild
Vital statistics: 5-foot-9, 168 pounds
Spurgeon is one of the smallest defensemen in the NHL in terms of height and weight. Even without the size of the traditional defenseman, Spurgeon has found a place in the league thanks to his impressive skating and puck movement.
Drafted 156th overall in 2008 by the New York Islanders, Spurgeon signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2010 after the Islanders did not sign him. Since joining the Wild, Spurgeon has been a reliable defender that can be counted on to put up solid point totals.
Spurgeon hit his career-highs in 2018-19 in goals (14), assists (29), and points (43). Since then he has continued to pile up the points to the tune of 19 goals and 57 points in 116 games. He’s consistently among the top-20 defensemen in the league in goals, power-play goals, blocked shots, and time on ice. He was also named captain of the Wild for the 2020-21 season, so leadership is a strength of his too.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
Vital statistics: 5-foot-9, 157 pounds
Throughout his hockey career, Gaudreau has been doubted due to his appearance but has consistently proven himself, despite his small size.
Before joining the Calgary Flames, who drafted Gaudreau 104th overall in 2011, he played college hockey with the Boston College Eagles. In his sophomore year, he was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Although he did not win in 2013, he was awarded the Hobey Baker Award after his junior year.
Gaudreau joined the Flames after his junior year season ended with the Eagles to play the final game of the regular season. On his first shot on goal in his NHL debut, he scored his first goal. He played his rookie season the next year with the Flames and earned 64 points in 80 games (24 goals, 40 assists). He was named a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy due to his impressive rookie season.
He’s become one of the best players in the entire league. In 2018-19, he set new personal bests in goals (36), assists (63), and points (99). “Johnny Hockey” is still an elite talent in the NHL despite regressing to 58 points in 2019-20 and 49 points in 2020-21. Since debuting at the end of the 2013-14 season, he has never finished with less than 18 goals and continues to be a threat every time he’s on the ice, even skating around in a 5-foot-9 frame.
Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks
Vital statistics: 5-foot-8, 183 pounds
Johnson went undrafted, which may have been due to his smaller stature, but was signed to an entry-level contract by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. In his first season, he played for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, which then was the Norfolk Admirals, and contributed to their Calder Cup victory.
He was recalled by the Lightning in March 2013 and has since been a member of the big club. During his rookie season in 2013-14, he scored 50 points (24 goals, 26 assists), and was Calder Memorial Trophy finalist.
The following season Johnson had a breakout campaign, 72 points (29 goals, 43 assists) in 77 games and put up an impressive performance in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 23 points (13 goals, 10 assists) in 26 games.
Since then, he has won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning, and even though his role was diminished, the 31-year-old still managed to become a vital member of the team in the playoffs. Playing on the fourth line, no less. After the 2021 Playoffs that saw him win his second Cup in as many years, he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason. He will now team up with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in an attempt to bring the Cup back to Chicago in 2021-22.
Cam Atkinson, Philadelphia Flyers
Vital statistics: 5-foot-8, 179 pounds
Atkinson was the 157th overall pick in the 2008 draft, by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Like many others on this list, he had a career season in 2018-19, putting up 41 goals, 28 assists for 69 points. He was also named an NHL All-Star.
As a smaller player, he was accustomed to hearing doubts about his career as a hockey player, which he explained to NHL.com, “Everyone at every single age, every single level, told me I wouldn’t make it to the next level. So I think that’s kind of fueled my fire, for sure. Obviously being a smaller guy, you have to have a little arrogance to your game. That’s what’s made me the person, the player, I am today.”
Atkinson has excelled in the NHL because of his explosive speed and skilled hands. And he learned from his friend and mentor, Martin St. Louis, how to succeed in the NHL regardless of his size. Since that 41-goal season, he has regressed a bit to only 27 goals in 100 games. After the 2020-21 season, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers after spending his entire NHL career with the Blue Jackets.
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens
Vital statistics: 5-foot-9, 181 pounds
Brendan Gallagher was arguably the best player to ever suit up for the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Vancouver Giants. He is also one of the smallest players currently in the NHL at 5-foot-9. Although he never plays like it, as he is a menace at the front of the net and a pain in the butt to play against. He is still the Giants’ all-time leading scorer almost a decade after he finished his career in the WHL. That alone should tell you how much of a difference he made wearing the black and burgundy.
Despite Gallagher’s accolades in the WHL, he wasn’t drafted until the fifth round by the Montreal Canadiens, most likely because of his size. However, that never held him back as he has become one of the most dangerous forwards in the NHL. In the nine seasons and 582 games he’s played, he has already scored over 30 goals twice and has never had a campaign where he’s potted less than ten. He’s quickly risen the ranks on the Canadiens to become the de facto number one right-winger and a fan favourite as well. Not bad for an undersized fifth-round pick, wouldn’t you say?
Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild
Vital statistics: 5-foot-8, 179 pounds
Zuccarello started his professional hockey career in his home country of Norway, with Frisk Asker. Next, he played in Sweden with MODO Hockey before signing with the New York Rangers as a free agent in 2010.
To adjust to the North American style, he originally played with the Rangers AHL club, the Connecticut Whale. In his NHL debut, he scored a shootout goal for the Rangers. He played 42 games with the Rangers that season, over multiple stints with the NHL club.
Zuccarello returned to the Rangers in March 2013, after joining the KHL during the lockout. He finished the season with the Rangers and played through all of their postseason games. In 2013-14 he emerged as a top player for the team, earning 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 77 regular-season games and was a key part of their Stanley Cup run that season.
Since his breakout year, he maintained his level of play with the Rangers, earning 352 points in 509 games. He was then traded to the Dallas Stars, where he played just three regular-season games and 13 playoff games (three points and 13 points, respectfully). In July 2019, Zuccarello signed with the Minnesota Wild.
Since joining the Wild, he has continued to be a consistent source of offence. In two seasons he has 26 goals and 72 points in 107 games. Between his skill, heart, and fearless play, Zuccarello’s become a fan favourite (from ‘Mats Zuccarello’s style makes him a fan favorite,’ Newsday, 05/03/2017) and a three-time recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. (from ‘Rangers Tradition Takes On Added Poignancy With Loss of ‘a Hero’,’ New York Times, 04/09/2017)
Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights
Vital statistics: 5-foot-9, 174 pounds
Marchessault played in the QMJHL and CHL and impressed with his scoring abilities. However, he was overlooked and undrafted due to his smaller size. He skated with the New York Rangers’ 2011 Traverse City tournament but was only offered an AHL contract with the Connecticut Whale.
After scoring 24 goals and a team-high 40 assists in his rookie pro season, Marchessault signed a three-year entry deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He scored 108 points in 130 games for their AHL affiliate, while only appearing in two NHL games with Columbus before being moved again.
The Tampa Bay Lightning finally gave Marchessault his first real NHL shot by playing him in 47 regular-season games and seven postseason games in two and half seasons. His play in the 2015-16 season earned him a two-year contract with the Florida Panthers.
His one season in Florida put him on the NHL map, scoring 30 goals and 51 points but wasn’t enough for him to be protected in the Expansion Draft. The Vegas Golden Knights were the beneficiaries as he scored a career-high 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists) and was rewarded with a six-year, $5 million (average annual value) contract.
Marchessault hasn’t matched the same point totals he put up in his first season with the Golden Knights, but he has continued to be a productive player. He already has four 20-goal seasons and has accumulated 92 goals and 225 points in 280 games since joining the team from Sin City. Needless to say, a lack of size has not held him back from becoming an elite player in the NHL.
Honourable mentions: Paul Byron, Conor Sheary, Yanni Gourde, Rocco Grimaldi, Torey Krug, and Vinnie Hinostroza.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.