Two of the best defencemen in the NHL last season are 5’9”.
Jared Spurgeon was 15th in average ice time behind Shea Weber, Kris Letang, and Mark Giordano, playing over 24 minutes per game. He put up 9 goals and 37 points in 61 games, good for 23rd in points per game among defencemen. His head coach, Bruce Boudreau, once called him “the best defenceman that no one knows about.”
Then there’s Torey Krug, who was eighth among defencemen in scoring with 14 goals and 59 points in 76 games, while averaging over 20 minutes per game for the Boston Bruins. The diminutive defenceman has consistently put up 40+ points every season. The one year he fell short, he had 39.
Z isn't as big as you guys think... Oh wait, nevermind. pic.twitter.com/XEyGD7On6M— Torey Krug (@ToreyKrug) March 20, 2014
In hindsight, both players would go high in the first round of their respective drafts. Instead, Spurgeon was a sixth round pick in 2008, while Krug went undrafted.
They’re far from the only defencemen that have fallen down the draft due to size concerns. Size likely played a role in Tyson Barrie falling to the third round. Shayne Gostisbehere initially went undrafted, then got picked in the third round in his second year of eligibility. Maybe Sami Vatanen gets drafted higher than the fourth round if he’s 6’2” instead of 5’10”.
Undersized defencemen don’t have the same stigma attached to them that they once did, however. Quinn Hughes is just 5’10” and 174 lbs, but his dynamic offensive game has him slated to be a top-10 pick, if not top-5. Adam Boqvist and Ty Smith both have “size concerns,” but they’re both projected to be picked high in the first round.
A couple smaller defencemen could be steals outside the first round. Nicolas Beaudin could slide out of the first round, and Calen Addison is also one to keep an eye on in the second round.
But who are the defencemen like Spurgeon and Krug? Who are the undersized defencemen who might one day play on a top pairing, but won’t get picked until late on the second day of the draft? These are players that might fall to the sixth or seventh round, or slip through the draft completely, and here is where there might be an opportunity for a team like the Canucks to find a future top-four defencemen, who has been overlooked for his size.
While these players are far from sure things, here are five undersized defencemen that might be worth a late-round pick or, at the very least, a training camp invite.
Scott Perunovich - 5’9”, 165 lbs
Perunovich is in his third year of draft eligibility, but has attracted a lot more attention this year after a solid freshman season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He is ranked 102nd among North American skaters by Central Scouting and 83rd overall by Hockey Prospect.
In his initial draft year, Perunovich was dominant in Minnesota high school hockey, but his small stature and likely some general distrust of the competition level he faced, left him undrafted. He followed that up with an underwhelming year in the USHL, causing him to slip through the draft again.
This year, Perunovich was one of the best offensive defencemen in the NCAA, putting up 11 goals and 36 points in 42 games as a freshman. He was named the top rookie in the NCAA and also helped the Bulldogs win the national championship. Combine that with a solid performance at the World Junior Championships and Perunovich definitely got noticed. As a result, he won’t slip through the draft again, with some suggesting he’ll go as high as the second round. The fact that he’ll turn 20 in August and weighs in at under 170 lbs will scare some teams off, however, and he could be available in the back half of the draft.
If Perunovich falls to the fourth round, he'd be an excellent target for teams looking for a dynamic offensive defenceman.
Perunovich is a fantastic skater, a necessity at his slight size, and an excellent passer, making him dangerous in transition. He’s a creative and confident player in the offensive zone and was the quarterback of one of the best power plays in college hockey. He also fares very well when looked at using a more analytical approach.
As you might expect, there are questions about his defensive game. While he’s particularly his ability to deal with puck battles along the boards, as well as bigger forecheckers. He’ll have to get stronger on his skates and in his core if he wants to play in the NHL.
Marc Del Gaizo - 5’9”, 170 lbs
Among first-time draft eligible defencemen in 2009, Torey Krug led the USHL in scoring. He had 10 goals and 47 points in 59 games that season, but was also praised for his defensive game. It was the type of production that likely warranted a pick, but he instead slid through undrafted. Five years later, he put up 40 points in his rookie season with the Boston Bruins.
This year, another 5’9” defenceman led all first-time draft eligible defencemen in the USHL in scoring. Once again, it seems likely that he’ll slip through the draft without being picked.
That’s not to say that Marc Del Gaizo is going to be anywhere near as good as Krug, who is definitely an outlier. But it sure seems like it would be worth using a sixth or seventh round pick on Del Gaizo just in case.
Del Gaizo had 12 goals and 38 points in 59 games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks — more goals, but fewer points than Krug in his draft year — and was fifth on his team in scoring. His 12 goals led all USHL defencemen. He has committed to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst next season.
Del Gaizo’s best attributes come into play on the breakout, as he uses his skating to evade forecheckers and quickly move the puck up ice, and his vision and passing to make great stretch passes. Beyond his obvious offensive skills, however, is a mature defensive game: he has enough strength to battle larger forwards and is smart about when to jump up in the play, limiting risk defensively.
If Del Gaizo is available in the seventh round, someone should take a chance on him. Otherwise, he'll be a prime target for the entire NHL as an NCAA free agent in a couple years.
Graham Lillibridge - 5’9”, 156 lbs
Ahead of Del Gaizo in USHL scoring is Graham Lillibridge, who is in his second year of draft eligibility. The 19-year-old is undersized even by undersized defencemen standards. Some outlets list him as 5’8” and under 150 lbs. Despite that, Lillibridge has a reputation for strong two-way play thanks to his strongest asset: his hockey iq.
Lillibridge uses his ability to anticipate the play and make smart reads make up for his lack of size and he has the skating and stickhandling to evade forecheckers and break the puck out cleanly. That said, he struggles in puck battles and in front of the net and will need to add weight in order to be effective in that area.
Offensively, he’s more of a puck distributor than a goalscorer. He can quarterback a power play with his passing, but isn’t much of a threat to score. There’s a reason why he was second among all USHL players in assists, but had just four goals.
Lillibridge might be worth a flier in the seventh round, but another option would be to invite him to prospect camp and potentially sign him as a free agent out of the NCAA in the future. With his intelligence and skill set, it’s worth keeping an eye on him.
Mac Hollowell - 5’10”, 170 lbs
One scout described Hollowell as a “right-handed Perunovich,” and the comparison is understandable. Like Perunovich, Hollowell is an undersized offensive defenceman with plenty of creativity and skill. They’re even born just a month apart. Hollowell, as a late September birthday, is in his second year of draft eligibility as opposed to Perunovich’s third year.
Hollowell is ranked 118th among North American skaters by Central Scouting after a breakout season in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He had 12 goals and 56 points in 63 games, good for fifth among OHL defencemen. Offensively, Hollowell is aggressive off the rush, using his vision and passing to create opportunities for his teammates or going hard to the net himself.
Most of his goals, in fact, came at 5-on-5, rather than on the power play. He had 9 goals at 5-on-5, with one more at 4-on-4. On the power play, he played much more of a distributor role.
Hollowell, however, has bigger question marks defensively than the others on this list, as his aggressiveness in the neutral zone and defensive zone can lead to him getting caught out of position. Combine that with his lack of size to win puck battles and it’s understandable why team would be reticent to take a chance on him at the draft.
Still, there’s an argument for taking a chance on him in the sixth or seventh round. Using the indispensable Prospect-Stats, we can get a little more in-depth view of his numbers. While the OHL doesn’t track ice time, it can be estimated, which gives us some points-per-60 statistics.
Hollowell’s estimated points-per-60 at 5-on-5, as well as his primary-points-per-60, is just a hair behind Evan Bouchard, who is expected to be a top-10 pick. While Hollowell is a year older than Bouchard, that seems like the type of statistic that would make you want to take a closer look.
Toni Utunen - 5’10”, 172 lbs
Some solid international performances for Finland once had Toni Utunen projected to go much higher in the draft. An underwhelming season offensively, however, has Utunen slipping down draft boards, to the point he might not get picked at all.
Utunen played in the second tier Finnish league, Mestis, putting up two goals and 12 points in 28 games. That was enough to lead all junior-aged defencemen in the Mestis, however.
Scouting reports paint a picture of a solid two-way defenceman, that plays very well defensively, limiting both his opponent’s time with the puck and his own mistakes. He lacks the dynamic skating ability to create offence off the rush and isn’t creative enough to create much in the offensive zone, but he’s capable at distributing the puck on the power play and has a decent slap shot that hints at some untapped offensive ability.
It’s not hard to draw a parallel to Sami Vatanen. Both were captains of their U-18 international squads and both played in a lower tier of Finnish hockey in their draft years — Utunen in Mestis and Vatanen in the Jr. A SM-Liiga. Vatanen, too, had an underwhelming draft year, managing just 10 points in 20 games in the Finnish junior league.
Utunen has great defensive awareness, but also has those two words that the Canucks love: character and compete. His leadership and willingness to battle and block shots in the defensive zone are attributes that will help him on his path to making the NHL. Combine that with his well-rounded game and Utunen could be a late-round steal.