The NHL may be getting faster and younger, but it also appears to be trending smaller.
Applying the rulebook to benefit niftier players such as pint-sized sniper Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets flashy winger Nikolaj Ehlers is now the standard. Every team seems to have smaller players capable of thriving in the bigs.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a 6-5, 220-pound right-winger, saw the change coming and made a conscious effort to adapt his game.
"There are differences," said Wheeler, adding his weight hasn’t fluctuated much since he reached the NHL in 2008-09. "I think when I first came into the league, for me, to win those 1-on-1 battles was such a huge deal. Especially coming out of college. You had to build your upper-body strength, you had to be a bit bulkier, a bit bigger.
"Now, my training in the summer isn’t so much how much muscle I can build. It’s a lot of speed-oriented stuff — a lot of quickness. And a lot of stuff to (be able to) come in great cardio shape, because you can’t take 20 games anymore to get in shape."
An off-season emphasis on skating is a big part of Wheeler’s program, a focus he shares with teammate Drew Stafford.
Stafford admitted he’s felt the pressure to adjust his game for the last five years.
"You’ve gotta be able to skate," said the right-winger. "It’s the way it is now... it’s getting faster. The way the training is now with the young kids coming in, they’re training 12 months a year — it’s non-stop."
When Stafford broke into the league in 2006-07, he played at 225 pounds, 10 above his current weight. Five years ago, he dedicated himself to avoiding shortcuts with nutrition, fitness and sleep. It’s paid off.
"For a guy like myself, the only way I can stay in this league is if I continue to work on my quickness," said Stafford, who is in the final year of a two-year contract. "My speed and making sure my skating is good.
"I’ve built an extremely good base when it comes to my hips and groin and stuff like that. It’s become a priority for me because, without that, I’m out of the league."
All-star goaltender Carey Price, in his 10th season with the Montreal Canadiens, has also adjusted his approach.
"From a goaltender’s perspective, I keep doing what I’ve gotta do," said Price. "Work on little things... what I’m trying to say is the pace has picked up and the skill level is constantly increasing, so you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings."
Price’s transformation from a top junior prospect to a decorated Olympian has been pretty dramatic.
He remembers his pro debut with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and leading them to a Calder Cup title as a 260-pounder. He joined the Habs full-time in 2008-09.
"I feel like the science of nutrition has changed a lot since the start of my career for sure," said Price. "I started in this league at 250 pounds. I’m 218 now."
Price said no one criticized his weight in those early days.
"I’m sure they probably thought that," he said, "but when your goalie’s stopping the puck, nobody really wants to say anything."
Jets centre Adam Lowry’s situation was different. He graduated from the junior ranks knowing he needed to add weight and strength to his 6-5 frame.
"I don’t think weight really matters," said Lowry, who tips the scales at 215. "It’s all about strength. If you feel good at 210 pounds there’s no need to be 215 pounds. It’s about finding a weight that you’re comfortable at, that you can still move.
"I’m 10 or 15 pounds heavier than when I was in junior and I’d say I’m faster."
Myers on leave
Jets defenceman Tyler Myers, sidelined since Nov. 11 with a lower-body injury, is currently on a leave from the NHL team to attend to a personal family matter.
"He’s still dealing with that matter," Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday, adding Myers has the full support of the club.
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