A conversation on size

by Colin Peterson | AHL On The Beat

The Winnipeg Jets prospect system runs through the Manitoba Moose. The parent club is able to keep a watchful eye on their future players while prospects get accustomed to professional hockey. The Moose feature a wide variety of players, each having their own set of attributes that prompted Winnipeg to draft or sign them. If you were to line up all the Jets prospects playing with the Moose next to one another, two of them will stand out, and for very different reasons.

Logan Stanley is a former first-round pick (18th overall, 2016) of the Jets. The defenseman played 219 games in the OHL between the Windsor Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers, scoring 80 points (24 goals, 56 assists) and registering 336 penalty minutes. Those numbers do attract attention, but not nearly as much as his 6-foot-7, 231-pound stature.

“I think I was a little bit above average, but not a crazy amount, when I was younger,” said Stanley. “And then in high school, I had a pretty good growth spurt. I think my minor midget season was when I kind of realized I might be a bit taller, a little bigger than some of the guys.”

Skyler McKenzie is a former seventh-round pick of Winnipeg (198th overall, 2017). In 282 games with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, the winger racked up 212 points (101 goals, 111 assists). McKenzie turned heads by scoring three goals during the 2018 preseason with the Jets. He stands nearly a foot shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Stanley, listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds.

“You see every day on the street that there are guys that are a lot bigger than me,” said McKenzie. “It was no secret that I was going to be a lot smaller than everyone. I just had to use that, and use it as fire to further my career.”

It’s not unheard of for smaller players to have success at the highest level. Last season Brad Marchand, Johnny Gaudreau and Artemi Panarin all finished in the top 20 of NHL scoring. Like them, McKenzie knows his size can also be used to his advantage.

Skyler McKenzie (Photo: Jonathan Kozub)

“I just knew that being a small guy I was going to have to do different things to kind of separate myself from the bigger guys that could possibly take my spot,” McKenzie said. “I had to find a way that I could use my speed and stuff to my advantage, being a smaller guy. I had to learn how to be a little bit shiftier and stuff like that and incorporate that in my game.”

While McKenzie’s quickness and skill are his greatest assets, a player with Stanley’s body size will have NHL general managers salivating over the opportunity to develop him into a physical force for their franchise. And while the means may be different, the goals of both players are the same on the ice.

Stanley explains that where he uses his size and reach, McKenzie is able to use his speed and agility to be what he called an “impact player.” But in the end, the coaches are asking for the same things from both prospects.

“I think for both of us, it would be stick on puck,” Stanley said. “[Whether] you’re a smaller guy or a bigger guy, I think one of the most important things in the game now is to have a good stick. Our coaches preach it, the coaches with the Jets preach it, and it’s a huge part of the game and of being a good defensive player and creating turnovers. No matter how big you are, that’s a really big one for me.”

Stanley and McKenzie were both born in 1998, but on opposite sides of Canada. Hockey has changed drastically during their lifetimes, but is trending towards younger players like them. The current game relies on speed. A native of Sherwood Park, Alta., McKenzie acknowledges that may seem like an advantage for a smaller player, but larger players have changed too.

“You see the bigger guys back in the day, they didn’t have the best foot speed,” said McKenzie. “Nowadays the guys that are coming in do have that foot speed. They’re not nearly as heavy as they used to be, they’re slimming down their weight, and they’re becoming faster players. They’ve made that adjustment to their game. It pushes us smaller guys even more. We have to find a way to out-compete them in that aspect as well.”

For Stanley, who was born in Kitchener, Ont., it’s that drive to compete which is the key factor in players like McKenzie finding success.

Logan Stanley (Photo: Jonathan Kozub)

“For small guys, what separates a lot of the good ones like Skyler is their compete level is always so high,” Stanley said. “They’re always in the game and on the puck, and it makes them really effective.”

That “compete level” isn’t a matter of choice for McKenzie. It’s how he’s always had to play. Once the game is on and the puck is sliding into the corner, his height is the furthest thing from his mind.

“I never really think about it. I just think about going into a battle, and making sure I come out of it with the puck. I never think about going into the battle and thinking, ‘Wow, this guy’s way bigger than me.’ I just know that I have to go in there and beat him.”

When sitting down for an interview, the pair were tasked with choosing a player they admire from their counterpart’s weight class. McKenzie picked out a player the Jets prospects could one day line up against in the NHL’s Central Division.

“A big guy that you can look at with a lot of skill is Jamie Benn,” said McKenzie. “He’s a big body, and he’s got lots of skill. He competes hard, he battles hard and stuff like that. I think he’s a good, bigger player to kind of model your game after if you’re a smaller guy. You’ve got to look at how hard he competes too. Jamie Benn for me would definitely be one.”

Stanley went back to his roots in the OHL, but couldn’t keep his answer to just one player.

“I’ve got two from back when I used to watch junior,” Stanley said. “One was Cody McNaughton. I don’t know if you’d know the name, he played for Guelph (165 points in 313 OHL games). He was so feisty and tough, and he was always fun to watch and always in the mix. Jeff Skinner, who played for Kitchener, was always exciting. He always had the puck, and was always making plays. So, that was a fun guy to watch.”

Watching the development of this unique duo of Jets prospects playing for the Manitoba Moose this season should be just as much fun.