The Decline of Small Defensemen in the NHL Draft

Ryan Ellis of the Windsor Spitfires in Game 4 of the 2010 Rogers OHL Championship Series in Windsor on Tuesday May 4. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Ryan Ellis was drafted 11th overall ny Nashville in 2009. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

The NHL is often heralded as a copycat league, meaning popular or successful things done in the NHL playoffs often get copied or replicated by the following season’s teams in the NHL Draft. In this feature, we’re going to look back at how NHL teams have been drafting smaller defensemen in each of the past 13 NHL Drafts (going back to 2010). This way, we’re going to be able to evaluate the emergence of different trends in how NHL teams select smaller defensemen, and what all of it means for today’s game. All of the following data comes from NHL.com.

If you look at the results (see table below), teams were not selecting smaller defensemen very often early on. In fact, only 6 defensemen under 6 feet tall were selected in 2010. That number slowly grew over the next few years, going as high as 14 in 2012. Numbers continued to increase up until 2015, when it dropped to 10. The quality of smaller defensemen (or lack thereof) for that particular draft class may have been the cause of that shift, but numbers were way up in the next five years, from 2016 to 2020. In those 5 drafts, on average there were 19 defensemen under 6 feet tall that got drafted to the NHL. During the 2018 draft (where there were 22 in total!), Quinn Hughes, Adam Boqvist, Ty Smith, Ryan Merkley, Nicolas Beaudin, Nils Lundqvist and Rasmus Sandin all heard their names in the first round. That’s a total of 7 defensemen drafted in round 1, whereas over the entire 13-year span we examined (2010-2022), the closest we got to that number was in 2017 with 4 (Makar, Brannstrom, Liljegren and Jokiharju).  Going even further backwards (from 2000 to 2009) there were only 5 defensemen less than 6 feet tall drafted in the first round over that span (Ryan Ellis, Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey, Kevin Shattenkirk and Keith Ballard).  The 2016-2020 timeframe was the golden era of smaller defensemen at the Draft; since 2010, a total of 181 were selected and 95 (52%) of those were drafted between 2016 and 2020.

The numbers dropped significantly after the 2020 draft. In 2021 and 2022, only 11 defensemen less than 6 feet tall were selected in each draft. You might ask yourself why? In 2019, the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup. They had a hefty defensive corps (on average: 6’3’’). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay went back-to-back in 2020 and 2021, in addition to making it to the finals in 2022. They had a similarly-sized defensive lineup each year. It’s not surprising then, that in recent years (notably the past two) the number of defensemen under 6 feet tall has dropped.

Will this trend continue this way? It’s hard to say. If you had told an NHL team in 2005 that 22 defensemen who are less than 6 feet tall (including 7 first round defenders) would be drafted in a single draft… they probably would have blocked your cell number.

In order for this trend to change, teams will need to demonstrate their capacity to win with a smaller defensive corps. You’ll need smaller defensemen (outside of elite cases like Cale Makar or Adam Fox) to shine in the postseason. In the last few years, it has been all about the big, physical defensemen who can eat a ton of minutes on the back end; look no further than St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Another example: the Montreal Canadiens’ defense in the 2021 playoffs (who made it all the way to the finals with names like Weber, Chiarot, Petry and Edmundson). This is what NHL teams are looking for now, and it’s showing in the draft results of the past two seasons. If there were more wins by teams with smaller defensemen (let’s say the ones drafted in the golden era mentioned above), I think you would have seen that trend continue. For now, at least, it seems clear that NHL teams believe that you need size on the back end to be successful.

If you look around at each NHL team this year and look at every team’s defense corps, there are not many defensemen under 6 feet tall playing a top-4 role in the NHL, with very few exceptions (in the elite or very good categories). Generally, smaller defensemen tend to end up on a third pairing, and quite often bounce in and out of the lineup because they can’t defend well enough for today’s NHL.

Defense is the name of the game now. If you can’t defend, you won’t be able to earn the trust of your coaching staff and won’t be their go-to guy in the playoffs, either. Often, smaller defensemen are relied upon for their offensive skills. However, it’s more challenging for them to defend at a high level. If you look at the list of smaller defensemen drafted since 2010, those who cannot defend at a high level simply have not panned out. The reality is that you can’t be an average smaller defenseman in the NHL, you need to be at a certain level in order to be effective and stay in the lineup. There are quite a few big (yet average) NHL defensemen around the league who are not limited by their size and strength and can therefore defend effectively enough to keep their roster spots. One phrase that is often used in hockey is “defense wins championships,” and right now, one of the factors that determine a competitive defense is their size on the back end. Looking at the past two drafts alone, the numbers would seem to reflect this.

That’s not to say that all today’s big defensemen are there due to their size alone. There’s a huge difference between today’s hockey when comparing it to the 1990s or early 2000s. Back then, there were a large number of big defensemen who had very limited puck skills and skating abilities. The game is way too fast now; today’s big defensemen are great athletes who can really skate and make plays with the puck. A guy like Victor Hedman really changed the game in my opinion, and now, it’s almost like every team has a defenseman of great stature who can skate and make plays on the ice. And if they don’t, they are actively searching for one.

One big problem for smaller defensemen is that the bigger defensemen are now bridging the gap in terms of skill. It’s remarkable to see the level of athleticism and talent many of the bigger defensemen have now, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. NHL teams have adapted and adjusted how they are scouting defensemen according to this trend.  There will always be room for elite to very good smaller defensemen, but the average ones are slowly disappearing from the NHL. If you’re very good, no matter what size you are, you’ll play. The numbers are simply trending down over the past two drafts as teams adapt their evaluations in consideration of today’s reality and what has been shown to bring teams the most success.

As scouts, one crucial factor we evaluate when scouting smaller defensemen is their skating. It’s very rare in today’s NHL to see an average-skating defenseman in the 5’10” range. If they are elite thinkers of the game, such as Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, that’s one thing. But in general, players 6 feet tall and under who can’t skate well enough to defend end up missing out. Therefore, you rarely see defensemen like them going high in the draft; a lot of missed 1st-round picks made in recent years (especially in the defensive category) have been attributed to average skating skills.  The skating element is just so vital for smaller defensemen that it’s reflected in how many of them have significant roles in an NHL lineup in the game today.

However, it’s not all bad; others in the smaller defenseman category can still succeed despite being undersized. They are not high-end offensive defensemen, but they have great skating abilities, are very good in transition, have a great compete level and can defend well overall as a result. Matt Grzelcyk of the Boston Bruins is a model I like to use to compare those types of defensemen in each draft, and similarly, we have just started seeing the emergence of Jordan Harris with the Montreal Canadiens this season as another defenseman in this category. A few key elements to their success: their skating, their ability to defend and their high compete level.

The draft itself is a complex beast, but more and more, I’m starting to see this trend play out when scouting smaller defensemen. If they can’t defend, or if their skating is only average, their road to get to the NHL will be much more difficult.  It should be interesting to see whether or not this reality continues to evolve over the next few years, and how teams adapt their drafting strategies as a result.

Defensemen under 6 feet tall selected in the NHL Draft 2010-2022

 Draft yearUnder 6'00"Under 5'10"1st round2nd round3rd round4th round5th round6th round7th round
2010610012102
2011701102102
20121432220413
20131421002506
20141312121403
20151010223210
20161630442114
20171924334302
20182237511440
20192062254223
20201861134243
20211140531011
20221131412201