One of the laments from last season’s failed campaign by the New Jersey Devils was a lack of size. A lack of nastiness. A lack of toughness. One could argue the team’s historically awful penalty kill, lackadaisical approach to defense, a team with plenty of youth and therefore lack of experience to get through various situations against experienced teams, and lack of offensive attack beyond whatever Jack Hughes’ line would do were bigger factors in the team finishing 29th out of 31. Nevertheless, size was a point of contention among some of the People Who Matter. For those, they shall be pleased with the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils. They are a bigger, heavier team compared to last season.
At least on paper they are a bigger and heavier team. Per Elite Prospects, the Devils ranked 24th in average height at 185.44 cm (or ~72.8 inches or a bit below 6’1”). That put them right in between Chicago and, um, the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. For average weight, the Devils finished 25th at 89.11 kg (or ~196.4 lbs.). That put them between Vancouver and a playoff-qualified Edmonton team. The Devils squad’s average weight was only heavier than Arizona, Philadelphia (who finished ahead of the Devils), Florida (who finished second in their division), Pittsburgh (ahead of NJ and made the playoffs), and Chicago. So that’s where they were last season in terms of average heights and weights.
Based on current rosters, the Devils are larger. Per Elite Prospects’ team comparison, the Devils are now sixth in the league average height. Standing taller at an average of 187 cm exactly, or roughly 74.4 inches for a bit above 6’2”. As for weight, the Devils are ninth with an average of 91.12 kg, or roughly 200.88 lbs. You wanted bigger? They got bigger. Thank the additions of Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, and Christian Jaros as they each stand at least 6’4” tall and officially weigh at least 220 pounds. Of course, these averages may have been influenced by the inclusion of 6’3” Jimmy Vesey, 6’4” Mark Jankowski, and 6’5” Frederik Gauthier on PTOs for this week’s training camp. Still, if (or when) they do not make the team, the Devils should be a bigger team based on average heights and weights from last season to this season.
Does it matter? I would argue: no, it does not.
Let us look at the most successful team of the last two seasons: The Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning and playoff hockey get this general reputation for being heavier, nastier, and a game where big dudes rule and small dudes drool. Throw in a complaint about Connor McDavid not getting a call if you’re an Edmonton fan coping with the reality that Ken Holland has not and will not build a contender around the generational talent. Yet, the back to back Stanley Cup Champions’ heavy average weight is buoyed by their goaltenders and defensemen. Their forwards had all of three men officially listed over 200 pounds and as nice as Ross Colton, Corey Perry, and Pat Maroon contributed here and there, they were and are nowhere near the leaders up front for the Bolts. All 5’11” and 183 pounds of Nikita Kucherov managed to rack up 32 points to lead the whole postseason in scoring and all 5’10”, 183 pounds, and Not Connor Chatham of Brayden Point led it in goals with 14. So much for smaller players not making things happen in the playoffs (looking at you again, Oilers fans).
As for the defense, Victor Hedman is massive but claiming his huge frame as a reason for his success is like crediting Wayne Gretzky’s flowing locks for dropping 200 point seasons in the 1980s. It may be true, but it does not actually correlate. Hedman is one of the most skilled defenders in the league between his fantastic stamina, ability to adjust in all situations, and provide value in all three zones. Furthermore, Ryan McDonagh had an awesome playoff run for the Lightning and he stands at a “mere” 6’1” and 214 pounds. Tampa Bay won back to back Cups with exceptional skill at each position. The size of their blueline was not the main factor in how they beat a Cinderella story Montreal team in 2021 or a Dallas team in an unusual 2020 format.
Being a “heavy” hockey team is more about the style of play and committing to the nastiness. Yes, being large can help. But I would think anyone familiar with Brad Marchand (who also scored a lot in the playoffs, second in goals only to Point), who is listed at 5’9”, should understand that being overly physical - even to cross the proverbial line - has no height or weight requirement. Likewise, anyone familiar with Frederik Gauthier should know that being a big man does not mean he is going to use that size since Gauthier really does not.
Further, take a closer look at the full ranges of the average heights and weights of teams in the league. The average height difference between #1 for 2021-22 (Winnipeg) and #32 (Buffalo) in the NHL is less than four centimeters. Specifically, 3.9 cm. That is 1.53 inches. I know averages can encompass a wide range of heights, but an inch and a half is the difference between being the tallest team in the league and the shortest team in the league. It really is not a big difference; an inch and a half is not going to help a player score goals, position themselves on defense, follow the coaches’ game plan, and react to the situations on the ice.
The difference in average weight between #1 for 2021-22 (Tampa Bay) and #32 (Chicago) is larger at 6.26 kg, or roughly 13.8 pounds. That is a bit more than just a couple of lb’s. Yet, I have to ask how an extra 13.8 pounds - we do not know if it is fat or muscle - makes a player better or worse at scoring goals, making plays, committing on defense, or following a game plan. Could someone hit harder with more weight? Sure. But is hitting hard the point of a check or separating the man from the puck more important? A lighter player skating faster and committing to a dirty hit like Marchand is going to do more damage than a heavy player going in slow and not committed. It gets nitpicky at this point, especially when you see that some of the best defensemen in the world are far from being massive examples of physicality. While the difference in average weights is larger, it is not apparent whether it means anything. Did Jack Hughes - the most talented Devil on the team, The Big Deal, etc. - perform better with the vaunted 14 extra pounds of muscle in 2021, or was it more of a function of being more experienced in the league, being more confident in his natural talents and having two linemates to play off of him effectively? I think the latter is more of a factor than the former, even if The 14 Extra Pounds of Muscle is more meme-able.
Combined, I think this is more trivia than a reason to think the Devils will be better in 2021-22. I get that some fans do not want to see the Devils get pushed around. Yet, getting bigger is not necessarily an answer to that. Being a better hockey team will help with that. I get that some fans and members of hockey management value size. But recall that this is a league where the average height difference between tallest and shortest teams is less than two inches, a tall player is simply not going to make anyone scared no matter how much a team’s color commentator talks up his imposing frame. This is a league where the average weight difference between the heaviest and lightest team is 13.8 pounds and it has little practical factor on what it takes to attack and defend. The Devils’ main issues on the ice last season had little to do with how big or not big some of the players were.
Why am I harping on this? Because I do not want the wrong lessons to be learned if the Devils are a better team in 2021-22. (And I badly want them to be a better team!) Too many times in this league (and in sports), a team wins a championship or shows major improvement and the takeaway from other teams is not exactly what caused the success and/or could be applied appropriately to their team. For example, the 1995 Devils won the Cup with the neutral zone trap. A lot of teams then decided to use it because the Devils won with it, but they did not immediately become better teams. Why? Because their teams weren’t the Devils, who were fully committed to the tactic and its philosophies and had the players to make it work as well as it did.
If the Devils are able to score more goals, prevent more goals, and have special teams that are least decent, then Tom Fitzgerald and his staff will deservedly get credit for that. I would not want Fitzgerald and his staff to then conclude, “Well, we got bigger and got better, so if we need to take the next step, we then must go even bigger.” That would ignore the potential gains made by the young players, the contributions of the players Fitzgerald added to the team, and other adjustments by the coaches to right the many wrongs of 2021. I would expect those to lead to more wins and points in the standings; not an increase of the team’s average height and weight. Given how the last three drafts have went, I think I am right to be a little concerned about that as size has been a point of emphasis more so than more tangible talents.
As a bit of history, older Devils fans may know better should they recall the several sub-six foot players who have been important players throughout the franchise’s history such as Sergei Brylin or Brian Rafalski. Or even if they only recall the name of Brian Gionta. He was generously listed at 5’7” and played far, far above his stature. Why? Because he had the quickness to keep up with the league’s play, the toughness to take hits, the bravery to go where the plays went on offense (Aside: Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier has this bravery too), and the skill on and off the puck to be a productive player without being a liability on defense. If you watched the past few seasons and wished the Devils had more “heart,” then I understand where you’re coming from. Then demand players who play like Gionta instead of those who dwarf him because the reality is that bigger does not always mean tougher or grittier or whatever-er. Size is just that: size.
And let me get in front of what will likely be asked in the comments: But, John, shouldn’t you pick the bigger player if two players are otherwise equal? No. That is a false premise. Good luck actually finding two equally skilled players wherein one is actually big and the other is small. I think you will have a better chance at finding and presenting an unicorn to me. Or you will end up picking two marginal, fringe NHL players to choose from as they are more likely to be equal for their non-uniqueness in the best league in the world. Even then, my answer would really be “It depends on what is needed” because even among the marginal, fringe players there are likely to be differences in more tangible areas such as skating.
The 2021-22 Devils are expected to be bigger than last season’s team in terms of height and weight. That is true. I do not think it is that meaningful. I hope the Devils are a better team in this coming campaign; I hope the lesson from that improvement does not become “You gotta get bigger, bro.” At that point, you might as well claim that Matt Tennyson equaled wins or some other nonsense. Of course, that is my opinion. What do you think about the Devils being a taller and weightier team on average for 2021-22 compared with last seasons? If you disagree that size really is not important, then why do you think so and what examples do you have? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about