(quick disclaimer, the audio/visual quality and clip selection for future videos has improved a lot since I made this video so check out the new stuff on Youtube!)
The height of a hockey player is both the easiest and the most difficult aspect of a player to factor into a profile.
In some ways, it's extremely simple. The list of successful junior hockey players 5'9" and under since the year 2000 is extremely long. The number of highly successful NHL forwards 5'9" and under during that same time frame is extremely short.
Essentially It's the same forwards over and over, names you've probably heard of before in Marchand, St. Louis, Briere, Gaudreau, Debrincat. It's simple math. NHL players appear to be less likely to translate their skills from the junior ranks to the pro ranks if they're smaller, as evidenced by the same 5-7 names dominating the short player circuit in the league for the last 20 seasons. So cross them off the list and take the guy who can dunk right?
Brayden Point isn't listed on here, but that's mostly a function of his listed height being 5'10" and sometimes 5'11", despite his combine height actually being 5'9" (5'10" listing is the NHL equivalent of the 6 foot Tinder profile: they're both really 5'9"). Point is often used as an example of a unicorn. He's a small center, a double rarity in the NHL these days, as centers are perceived as needing a taller frame above that of wingers to succeed.
5'10" listing is the NHL equivalent of the 6 foot Tinder profile: they're both really 5'9"
This is where the discussion goes from simple to complex. What separates Jayden Halbgewachs, a name you may not be familiar with, from Brayden Point, an all-star? Are there lessons to be learned from each player's development that can be applied to someone like Daniil Gushchin, and can those lessons help make a reasonable projection for him? What aspects of a shorter player's development lend to success, and which to a life in the minors? Why do we have to pay Turbotax money if the IRS already knows how much we owe and could just tell us instead of making us guess? How do eels procreate? I'm going to attempt to answer at least a few of these questions here today, and you can try to figure out which as we go on.
Brayden vs. Jayden vs. Gushch-en:
Brayden vs. Gushch-en:
(Gushchin is probably 5'8"-5'9", Point is actually 5'9", despite what the above chart from hockeyprospecting.com says)
There are some fun comparisons to be made here. Gushchin and Point were both drafted in the 3rd round, both in the late 70s. Point was a bit more productive and has maintained a bit more productivity since, however has also played on significantly better teams than Gushchin has ever played on. Gushchin has been the leading scorer for his team every year since his draft year, and this past season by a ludicrous margin. The comparisons in playing style are readily apparent from their draft years.
Worked well offensively, showing speed and excellent puck control. Made plays off the rush at top gear. Small but elusive, and able to slip through small cracks and duck under pressure.
And for Gushchin from the EPrinkside 2020 draft report:
"The winger doesn't just rely on quick hands to pull off his dangles; he sets up really well by faking a shot or a pass first and then separates by accelerating inside his movements," Davis St-Louis wrote in a November game report. "His execution on those feints, his ability to incorporate patience, deception, and foot-work, lets you think that they will continue to work and be a part of his game at the next levels"
And the comparisons of relentlessness, work ethic, motor, or whatever cliché you like for smaller players are also apparent between the two:
"He never stops moving, he’s relentless on the forecheck, he plays bigger than he is and once he chases down loose pucks, he’s got the skill and the agility to dart through traffic to make plays. I’ve never seen him play a bad game."
Point is a spark-plug who plays bigger than his size suggests. He's got a strong work ethic and a motor that doesn't stop. He can play 200 feet, is strong on the draw and shows loads of grit. He makes smart passes and has impressive vision. He's more of a playmaker but can finish, too.
So what do I think?
I mean, Brayden Point is better, and that's not a hard position to take I realize. He has exceptional vision, a bit more passing skill than Gushchin, and a more sound defensive game and physical strength. It's not perfect by any means for Point, and his NHL game has had some ups and downs, but he can truly be a difference maker for a team stacked with difference makers in the Tampa Bay Lightning. Gushchin has a few advantages in that I think his shot is better than Point's was even if it's a little inaccurate. I don't think Gushchin will have problems beating goaltenders if he gets space. I do think there could be an issue with him establishing body positioning at the next level. He does rely on rush offense a bit too much, and needs to improve a grindy, cycling game to maintain possession. An example from Point's draft year reel would be this:
Gushchin prefers to go wider in his game, maintaining possession by avoiding contact with his speed, shoulder fakes, and feints rather than muscling inwards:
Not saying that he hasn't tried it, but the majority of the time when I see Gushchin succeeding at beating his man, it's from a deke and speed rather than his actual physicality. This is troublesome, as defenders are about to get a lot tougher, faster and better at stopping players just like him. However, Gushchin does have enough other elements to his game, and most importantly a track record of improving over the course of a season. He seems to work on his game frequently, finding new edges and paths to becoming successful at a given level. He started his draft USHL season with 0 points in his first four games, ending with 47 in his last 38. Similarly when he had to adjust to OHL competition for the first time this year, he put up 1 point in his first four games then ended the campaign with 70 in his last 47 games. I'll be watching his AHL Barracuda games specifically looking out for this trend, as I think he might start off slow before finding a game that works. I'll also be looking out for his physical play and how that changes at the next level.
I think succeeding in the professional ranks as a smaller forward is kind of like finding out who committed a murder. The player has to have the motive, means, and opportunity to do so. Unfortunately the last two are often the biggest hurdles. As is the case with Jayden Halbgewachs.
Jayden vs. Gushch-en:
Jayden Halbgewachs not only has a really hard to pronounce last name, he also has some ridiculous junior hockey numbers. After being undrafted in 2015, probably because he put up 8 points in 59 games in the WHL as a 5'8"-5'9"ish winger, he steadily improved his production. He ended his junior hockey campaign in his draft+3 season in 2017-2018, with 129 points, 70 goals, and 59 assists in one season. His team? Well the Moose Jaw Warriors of course, the same team that brought up the phenom Brayden Point just 3 years prior. In fact they played a few seasons together before Point went on to bigger and better things.
So what did Jayden do well? Obviously quite a lot. Let's look at a highlight reel:
Right off the top you'll notice traits that are present in both Gushchin and Point. Speed, intelligence, elusiveness, and a nose for the net. But what about our recipe for small-winger NHL success?
I think succeeding in the professional ranks as a smaller forward is kind of like finding out who committed a murder. The player has to have the motive, means, and opportunity to do so.
I can't speak to his motivation or his work-ethic, but I assume they're fine. He's had to endure criticism, self-doubt and a small frame his entire hockey career. But what else is a pattern with the above video?
The ever present and mostly untranslatable junior-league swoop around the defense and skate to the net, leaving the goalie with a man in front of the net unprotected. The problem is of course, that NHL and even AHL defenders have the ability to turn their hips and swat the puck off the swoopers stick. When your primary goal-scoring method is taken away, your means to make the NHL are going to be limited. So what happened when Jayden hit the AHL after signing with the Sharks as an undrafted free agent? Mostly nothing.
Jayden had some up and down production, and failed to really progress to above a 0.5-0.6 PPG AHLer. He had 3 games for the Sharks this year, and admittedly I enjoyed watching his speed and he had a multitude of fun rushes up ice and a breakaway that was ever so close to getting him his first NHL goal, but as quickly as he came, he went. NHL coaches abhor a small winger without physicality. They're like nature and Dyson vacuum cleaners, or something... I don't know my physics teacher always said that.
So therein lies the third problem for our murderous metaphor for small winger NHL success: opportunity. NHL coaches won't put these players on a line with other players of similar skill level to them if the player can't check, get pucks back, or defend in their zone. This took years of watching Kevin Labanc struggle to break out of the defensive zone, getting benched, and then the cycle repeating for this to really solidify in my mind. Labanc finally ended up with the opportunity to make it "big" by lining up next to Joe Thornton on a really unfair third line that demolished other third line competition. He got powerplay time and took advantage of it. Labanc found the opportunity. Halbgewachs didn't, and was let go from the Sharks as a UFA this summer, remaining unsigned.
That's not to say his career is over, as it's certainly possible the right situation comes along for a player like Jayden, and he takes off. I'm hoping for that outcome to be honest, he is fun to watch when he's got the puck on his stick. I want to reiterate that I mean no disrespect to Jayden here, he's just a really good example to use here.
So what does Gushchin need to do to end up more towards the Brayden path rather than the Jayden path? I think mostly what he's been doing. He's worked on his speed and his shot, to the point where he finished third in "Best Shot" by the OHL coaches poll. This will help him contribute from distance, instead of having to rely on the untranslatable swoop and score.
He's an outrageous stickhandler. I think that part of his game will need to be refined, but the base is there to beat NHL defenders.
I've seen multiple reports about how good Gushchin is defensively, and I understand what those scouts are saying, but I think it's more of a factor of his speed and willingness to get back rather than really smart positional defense or ability to get pucks off attackers. This will have to improve in my opinion. He's got to get lower in his checks, and focus on outworking their stick and angling his body to shield. Bordeleau who is a similar sized player does this very effectively, and Gushchin still needs some work at it.
NHL coaches abhor a small winger without physicality. They're like nature and Dyson vacuum cleaners, or something... I don't know my physics teacher always said that.
Besides that, it's going to come down to opportunity for Gushchin. I worry less about the means so to speak, as I think he's a better, more well rounded and skilled player than Jayden was when he came to the Cuda, despite Gushchin being a full year younger.
Gushchin may not fall into the perfect situation like Brayden Point did, as Tampa was among the league's best teams by the time Point was drafted and have been since. This allowed for a more structured and sheltered role for Point as he was coming up through their organization. Gushchin won't have that. He's going to have to grind it out in the AHL for a bit until it's his time to shine at the next level. He may have to be the primary puck carrier and carry a line in the AHL first before he moves up. It's something he's very used to though, as he's always out-producing his teammates since his draft year. I hope for his sake that he can adjust appropriately, and I look forward to watching him attempt to put the pieces together. Personally, I think he'll end up great a middle-six option for San Jose down the line, but that's just coming from a guy who can't do his taxes right.