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Leafs need size, yes, but I'll take a Gionta, Briere or Gerbe, too...

There’s no question that, going forward, the Leafs want to add a good center-ice player and  they want/need to get bigger if they intend to compete deep into the playoffs in the years to come.

Just watching Game 6 of the Chicago-Vancouver match-up on Sunday night should have reminded us that the Leafs have a ways to go to be able to compete at this level.  And yes, size will be part of what the Leafs will need in order to have a chance to succeed at this time of year. (Big Joe Thornton looked good scoring in OT to send the Sharks into the second round...)

But as I’ve been watching this year’s playoffs, I have to say I’ve also enjoyed watching the classic old-time “small” player re-establish himself as an important part of the playoff picture.

In the olden days, when I was a kid in the early 1960s, we had guys like Stan Mikita, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom (see the early 1960s photo of Montreal's small but speedy Backstrom at right), Lou Angotti, Pit Martin and Dave Keon who all could fly and made plays.  They usually stood out in the playoffs, too, even when the checking got tougher because they had a great work ethic and played a strong all-around game.  They had to be good to survive.

It’s always been a challenge for the “small man” to compete in the NHL.  Back in the '60s, I remember that experienced commentators would say that if most coaches had to choose between a good small player and a good big man, they would always take the bigger player.

Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Phil Esposito would, for example, be the choice over the good little guys I mentioned above.  And on defense, coaches would choose Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson or Scott Stevens over smaller guys like Pat Stapleton, as goods as Stapleton was.

That said, there is still room it now seems for these small guys, though they became almost extinct for a while as the league allowed a style of play that virtually took the little guy out.

Now, with the advent of less clutching and grabbing (though still close-checking, I realize, especially at this time of year) since the end of the lock-out, talented under-sized players can thrive again.

And specifically in these playoffs, it’s been fun to watch the “little man” again making a difference—like Danny Briere haunting his old Sabre teammates to the tune of 6 goals in seven games.  Now, Briere is not exactly tiny at 5 foot 10 and 180 or less pounds, but nowadays, that’s not big.

On the other side of the ice in that series has been a real revelation—Buffalo’s Nathan Gerbe.  The 23 year-old Michigan native is listed at 5 feet 5 inches, and he can fly.  He didn't play huge minutes, but Ruff used him well, and Gerbe responded with 2 goals and was “even” through the tough playoff series against the Flyers.

At 5 foot 7 and 175 pounds, Montreal's Brian Gionta is another “little” guy, a veteran forward who has won a Cup with the Devils and is now the captain of the Habs. He’s smart, quick and plays the game hard.  he scored his third goal of the series against the Bruins Tuesday night.

So yes, the Leafs need to get bigger, but if they can come up with a small guy that can play with skill and intensity like Gerbe, Briere or Gionta, hey, that’d be OK, too.

1 comment:

  1. The Leafs could afford a small center if we had towering wingers. Right now a line of Briere, Kessel and Lupul woud probably put up some points in the reg season, but on the road, in the playoffs, I would not feel confident with that line not having last change.

    Of course, a lot of it is about determination and courage, not so much size. So long as we have hard working and fearless forwards, their size shouldn't count for so much.

    Good story, thanks.