Is Winnipeg Jets’ Ville Heinola too small? A look at size in the NHL

Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

NHL fandom, and by inference Winnipeg Jets fandom, has a size problem. I posit that size with equal skill is an asset. Size on its own is not. Yet that does not seem to be the prevailing wisdom amongst hockey fans.

Bigger is better for many armchair enthusiasts, and even some professional pundits (looking at you Kevin Sawyer). Let’s try to set the record straight.

Former Winnipeg Jets’ defenseman Toby Enstrom was listed at 5’ 10” and 180 pounds. In reality, Toby Enstrom wouldn’t touch 180 pounds with a bucket of loonies strapped to him. I had the opportunity to meet Toby on several occasions (an affable fella) and I would size him up at around 5’9” and 160 pounds. Yet, Enstrom was one of the best defensive defensemen in the league.

How is that so?

There are many ways to play defense. Enstrom was unorthodox and brandished a hockey stick better suited for pole vaulting. Compared to say his primary playing partner, Dustin Byfuglien, Enstrom seemed ill-equipped for the position. Physically, Byfuglien at 6’5” and 265 pounds appeared (on the surface) as more of your prototypical NHL defenseman.

Winnipeg Jets: Using the RAPM Tool to evaluate defenseman

Using Evolving-Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAMP) tool, we can compare the overall relative impact of both players:

"The RAPM tool can identify the players who have the strongest impact on suppressing and creating quality scoring chances through their expected goals model. Most importantly, this tool can level the playing field by giving us a player’s isolated defensive impact after accounting for variables such as teammate quality (who they share the ice with on shifts), opposition quality, zone starts (some players start in the defensive zone more often than others) and more."

Courtesy of Evolving Hockey below, we can see both players’ relative impact both offensively and defensively. The first three metrics (GF/60, xGF/60 and CF/60) measure primarily offensive output. The last two (xGA/60 and CA/60) are primarily defensive prowess. From 2015-2018 we can see that both were effective, but in very different ways:

The Jets’ odd couple was truly odd. The ‘big’ guy was primarily an offensive contributor, and the ‘small’ guy made his bones on the defensive end. Yet, if you sampled a large number of Winnipeg Jets’ fans, they would speak glowingly about “Big Buff” and reservedly about Enstrom. Byfuglien was a highlight juggernaut, and Enstrom played boring but effective defensive hockey (and was small).

Let’s use another comparison. This one illustrates just how differently defensemen can contribute. Josh Morrissey a.k.a. Josh Norrissey is considered a ‘small’ defenseman at 6’0” and 190 pounds. Ryan McDonagh (Nashville) has long been considered one of the better defensive defensemen in the league. At 6’2” and 215 pounds  – he fits the mold.

Statistically, Morrissey nets out ahead based entirely on his offensive contributions. McDonagh is clearly better on the defensive end but is a negative presence in terms of his team’s ability to score goals while he is on the ice.

What does this mean? A crushing hit or a bruising net-front battle is optically more pleasing than a simple stick check or clean zone exit, but statistically, the latter (on the whole) leads to more victories. The truest value of a defenseman now is their ability to support the puck across the two blue lines. There is obviously still real value in toughness and sandpaper (which the Jets sometimes lack), but not at the expense of puck movement.

One of the problems is that while the way hockey is being played has changed, most NHL fandom has not. The NHL has gone smaller and quicker, so the need for lumbering, “space-clearing” defensemen has dwindled. While it’s not perfectly linear, if you focus on weight, today’s D-men are, on average, nine pounds lighter than their average counterpart 15 years ago. Despite that, many fans still like the big guys.

The rules have changed as well. Defenders can’t take a free hand off their stick to wrap their opponents. No slashing of the hands, and no hooking an opposing forward in the slightest. If forwards want to maintain a net-front presence, they pay a much lesser price than they did in years past.

Currently then, what is the best way to clear out the defensive end and especially the crease? Control the puck. Cale Makar is a prime example of this. You don’t have to play defense when you’re on offense.

Is Winnipeg Jets’ Ville Heinola Effective Despite His Size?

This brings us to Ville Heinola. Listed at 5’10” and 180 pounds, Ville appears to be, and projects himself much smaller. His offensive prowess is well understood, but his defensive impact is largely misunderstood.

Let’s do one last comparison. Ville Heinola and Brenden Dillon. Most would say that Dillon is much better defensively (which is correct), but when looked at holistically, Dillon’s negative impact on offence makes him about equal to Heinola (based on RAPM). Remember, Heinola makes basically the league minimum and is ostensibly a rookie:

Heinola is better at manipulating a puck in a high-pressure, swarming environment and working it to a lower-pressure area to maintain possession for the Jets. This enables them to keep control of the puck and move it forward. But he’s small.

Does he need to work on his conditioning and strength? Absolutely – but lots of players do. Does his size mean he should be evaluated any differently than any other Winnipeg Jet? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, as fans, we don’t often focus on the real important characteristics of a good defenseman – hockey IQ, skating, and technique.

Rather the focus becomes anecdotal. If a defenseman loses a puck battle to a larger opponent (which happens to all players), it is remembered more vividly than a simple, yet clever outlet pass. This doesn’t mean Heinola is going to develop into a top 4 defenseman, it just means he should be judged on his play, not on his size. No small feat.

Next. 3 Winnipeg Jets prospects primed for World Junior success. dark