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The NHL’s best team is also its smallest

The Lightning aren’t using size to beat opponents this season.

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Calgary Flames v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

How are the Tampa Bay Lightning so good this season? Well, if the latest roster breakdown from The Athletic’s James Mirtle is any indication, size has nothing to do with it.

According to Mirtle’s analysis of the 31 NHL teams by age, height, and weight for the 2017-18 season, the Lightning come out as the smallest. They’re the lightest team on average by nearly two pounds and stand right beside the Canadiens as one of the shortest.

That hasn’t stopped Tampa Bay from being a force in the Eastern Conference this season. The Bolts are currently holding an eight-point lead for first place in the Atlantic Division with a 31-10-3 record. They have five more points than any other team and a plus-49 goal differential that blows away the competition.

And many of their key players are quite tiny by NHL standards.

  • Top forward Tyler Johnson, who has racked up 35 points in 43 games, comes in at just 5’8 and 185 pounds. Brayden Point, who has 40 points in 44 games, is even lighter at 5’10 and 160 pounds.
  • Only three of their forwards are taller than six feet: Alex Killorn (6’2), Steven Stamkos (6’1), and Cedric Paquette (6’1)
  • Their average forward weighs just 183.6 pounds.
  • The defense is significantly larger at an average of 6’3 and 212 pounds.

That final note is important in terms of understanding what general manager Steve Yzerman’s roster construction plan was. It seems like the Lightning realized that while size remains important to a degree, that is primarily focused on the defensive end, where players need to use their weight to challenge puck-handlers and protect the area in front of the net.

But when it comes to the forwards, and especially wingers, the Lightning are all-in on speed and skill over size. There are no big, lumbering power forwards on this roster. Instead there are a bunch of guys who can really move their feet and the puck to spin the defense into knots.

It’s an evolution from a few years ago, when teams loaded with bigger forwards like the Kings and Bruins were regularly among the league’s best. Now the league has pivoted toward speed and guys who can aggressively pressure the puck. The Lightning are among the leaders in that change of approach.

This strategy of primarily focusing on size with defensemen seems to have applied to the draft, too. In the past two years, the Lightning have selected three defensemen: Callan Foote (2017 first-round pick), Nicklaus Perbix (2017 sixth-round pick), and Oleg Sosunov (2016 sixth-round pick).

Foote is 6’4, 208 pounds. Perbix is 6’2, 191 pounds. Sosunov is a monster at 6’8, 240 pounds.

Meanwhile, they drafted 11 forwards, and only two of them weigh more than 200 pounds. Their 2017 seventh-round pick, Sammy Walker, measures in at just 5’9 and 150 pounds now. It didn’t stop them from taking a flier on the forward, who will be a freshman at the University of Minnesota next year.

So it seems like the Lightning have altered their view on the importance of size in some way, even if they’re not abandoning it entirely.

It’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t the only effective way to build a successful NHL team in 2018. The Stars, Jets, and Blues are the three biggest teams in the league, and they all look likely to join the Lightning in the playoffs. There’s no single way to win in today’s game.

But the NHL is evolving, and it’s hard not to notice that the league’s best team is also its smallest. Given how many copycats we’ve seen in the past, don’t be surprised if other front offices are giving a look at just how the Lightning put this team together. You can check out the complete breakdowns of the rosters at The Athletic.