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NHL PREVIEW: League is trending towards smaller, faster and quicker

TORONTO — Drew Doughty knows that opponents who go into Staples Center expect to get hit early and often by the big, physical Kings. Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup twice with that hard style of hockey.

Now, perhaps, more teams have the antidote.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the front lines of the NHL's trend toward smaller, faster more skilled teams that hit and fight less and would rather win by holding onto the puck.

"If they can't catch us, they can't hit us," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.

Rule changes 10 years ago put the emphasis on skill over size, and in recent years more players like Tyler Johnson of the Lightning and Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames can thrive despite being well under six feet tall. While Martin St. Louis and Daniel Briere had to break the mould, players of their ilk are now far more prominent.

"It's about if you can skate and play the game," Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. "It gives more people the opportunity to play in the NHL. When you look at the kids, their dreams are not shattered if they don't grow to be 6-2, 200 pounds."

There's still room in the NHL for the six-foot-five, 230-pound players, provided they can keep up. Someone like the Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler fits the model of a player who has the size and the speed to succeed.

"Pretty effective, he's a good guy to have on your team," Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba said. "If you have a big, quick guy, he's probably going to come out on top."

Traditional hockey scouting suggests teams would rather draft a bigger player with the same skill-set as a smaller one. But the Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to cash in on skill, skill and more skill, as they've selected smaller forwards William Nylander and Mitch Marner in the top 10 each of the past two years.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said teams following Stanley Cup champions like the Chicago Blackhawks and runners up like the Lightning is nothing new and considers the smaller, faster trend a cyclical development. Commissioner Gary Bettman said skill comes in all shapes and sizes.

"It just so happens that we're seeing a group of extraordinarily talented young players who happen to not be the largest players on the ice, but their skill, they're able to shine," Bettman said.

Coaches talk defence first, and Doughty thinks that is what tipped the scales in the Blackhawks' favour in the Cup final. But scoring is the name of the game now.

"If he can score the goals, you look at Johnson last year for Tampa Bay, he's hard to play against," Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith said. "He's fast and skilled and smart. If you have a bunch of fast, skilled, smart guys, it doesn't matter what their size is, they're going to be hard to play against."

The biggest change veteran players notice over their careers is just how fast the NHL has gotten. Without so much hooking and holding, the sport is as fast as ever, and that has opened the door to shorter players.

"It's definitely more about being in the right place and movement," New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "The shorter guys, if you're fast, you can have an opportunity to play in the league. It doesn't matter if you're 5-9 or 6-5."

Critics argue that, without the red line for two-line passes and as much obstruction, the game is too fast. Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson acknowledges accidents are going to happen but believes it's actually harder to play correctly because the speed has been ratcheted up.

"It's a way faster game now than what it used to be," Karlsson said. "That's tougher on your body. That's going to be tougher for everything you have to do. You have to make the decisions even faster now and you have to worry about things that you didn't have to worry about before."

Not every team is following the Chicago or Tampa Bay model. The Kings and Bruins are sticking with big and strong, and the Jets, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks have played that way with success.

Doughty wondered if playing such a physical style has gassed the Kings over the course of a season, but he and teammate Anze Kopitar believe that kind of hockey is still a winning recipe if there's some speed involved, too.

"I do think you have to have a good balance of that, of being big and hard and strong and at the same time being quick and fast and have a lot of skills," Kopitar said. "I guess that's the GM's job to throw that mix in there."

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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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