CALGARY – Being a smaller player used to be an obstacle in the NHL, but the Calgary Flames have turned that notion upside down.
The five-foot-nine, 165-pound Johnny Gaudreau led the Western Conference’s top team in scoring this season with 99 points.
Centre Derek Ryan had a breakout season for the Flames with 13 goals and 25 assists, and is only slightly taller at five foot 10.
Ryan was undrafted despite being an outstanding player in junior, at the university level and then with several teams in Europe.
“I think a lot has changed especially from my draft era where it was more bigger, slower players then you see now. There’s still some of those players in the league but it’s pretty hard to keep up,” said Ryan, 32.
“The game has changed to be a lot faster, a lot more skilled.”
The lack of size hasn’t hurt the Flames all season, and continued to be a non-factor in Game 1 of the playoffs as Calgary blanked the visiting Colorado Avalanche 4-0. Game 2 is Saturday night.
It took Ryan until he was 29 to get an NHL contract and he’s no longer dwelling on the past.
“I’ve kind of got past the point of ‘pinch me, here I am.’ It’s more of a ‘here I am. What can I do to make the best of it and make it last?’ Here I am in the playoffs and this is a dream come true for any hockey player, let alone one that’s been on a journey like myself,” Ryan said.
Flames head coach Bill Peters shrugs off size as an impediment. He points out that Andrew Mangiapane, who scored the winning goal in Game 1, has found a way to find a place on the team.
The five-foot-10 Mangiapane was selected in the sixth round of the NHL draft in 2015
“It doesn’t matter what round, if you’re a free agent, you’re coming out of the NCAA or major junior hockey or you’re from Europe. You get signed by an organization and then the hard work begins. I think that’s the way you should look at it,” Peters said following a team meeting Friday.
“He continues to go into the hard areas as an undersized guy and that’s important.”
Peters said when it comes to the NHL now, size doesn’t really matter.
“The game’s changed over the years right? I’d rather have a five-foot-11 guy that’s competitive in the trenches every night than a six-foot-four guy who’s on the perimeter,” he said.
“We worry about who’s in the heart of the game and those guys in the heart of the game are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.”
Calgary winger Matthew Tkachuk, who scored two goals in Game 1, gives credit to the play of the line of Ryan, Mangiapane and Garnet Hathaway.
“Hath (Hathaway), Doc (Ryan) and Mange (Mangiapane) were able to draw that penalty and almost scored on that day,” Tkachuk said. “I thought they were all over it, especially in that second period.”
Flames netminder Mike Smith is warning his teammates not to look to far ahead. He said it’s still a long way to the Stanley Cup final.
“One game doesn’t make … a playoff run so it was good and we’re happy with that but today’s a new day and tomorrow’s a new game,” Smith said.
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