This series will shine a light on the most unusual NHL players — the guys who stand out from their peers in one way or another in dramatic fashion. Part 1 looks at the biggest size outliers the league has to offer, based on their listed dimensions at NHL.com.
As long as the product the NHL is selling is a contact sport, the size of the players on the ice will matter greatly.
Teams will be enticed by the idea of a big power forward who can bounce off of hits, or a massive defenceman capable of erasing opponents with a long stick and a willingness to throw his body around.
When players are smaller, their ability to hold up physically will be questioned, and a playoff slump or two can invite narratives about whether they're built for postseason hockey.
Some of the discourse ends up being unfair, particularly considering how skill has come to dominate the NHL in recent seasons while fighting dissipates and teams — other than the Toronto Maple Leafs — opt not to fill a roster spot with an enforcer.
The importance of size can be overstated, but it's not irrelevant. The NHL includes players with an extremely large range of sizes, but those on the extreme ends of the size spectrum often have to play the game a little differently.
The heaviest skater: Jamie Oleksiak, D, Seattle Kraken - 257 pounds
Oleksiak plays precisely the kind of style you'd expect to see from the NHL's biggest man.
The Kraken defender has never scored more than 25 points in a season, has logged less than 60 minutes of power-play time in 11 NHL campaigns, and possesses a defensive-zone start percentage of 57.7% for his career.
Oleksiak uses his bulk to hit opponents and block shots at a solid rate, ranking 17th among defenceman in the first metric and 64th in the second over the past three years. He's also no stranger to dropping the mitts.
His 12 major penalties since the beginning of the 2020-21 season are tied for ninth among all blueliners.
Essentially, the 30-year-old behaves precisely how you'd expect a giant to on the ice. He focuses more on being an obstacle for opposing offences than creating offence of his own — and he consistently gets physical, whether that means throwing his body or his fists.
Oleksiak's size prevents him from being an extremely swift skater, but he does enough well to serve as a cornerstone of Seattle's defence corps.
The lightest skater: Matthew Phillips, F, Washington Capitals - 140 pounds
Phillips has played just three NHL games, so the book isn't written on how he'll be able to survive at the highest level at his size.
What we do know is that he's been a force in the AHL.
Phillips has 67 goals and 144 points in 131 AHL games over the past two seasons, displaying speed, creativity with the puck, and a quick release.
Wranglers Hat trick goal Matthew Phillips (8) assisted by Ben Jones (5) pic.twitter.com/YjxnTcIF9L
We are in uncharted waters with Phillips because no other skater has reached the NHL listed below 153 pounds in the 21st century. It's possible that finding success at this level will be out of reach for the 25-year-old.
At the same time, it's unfair to rule the former sixth-round pick out. He clearly possesses a high level of skill and has logged 265 AHL games without falling apart physically.
During the offseason, Phillips found a new organization and signed with the Washington Capitals. It will be fascinating to see what he can do at the NHL level if Washington is willing to give him more rope than the Calgary Flames did.
The densest skater: David Savard, D, Montreal Canadiens - 31.0 BMI
Oleksiak may be the heaviest man in the NHL, but Savard is the densest the league has to offer. Theoretically, that could make him an even more imposing physical presence than the Kraken blueliner, but his bulk doesn't manifest itself the same way.
Last season Savard had fewer hits (61) than games played (62), but perhaps unsurprisingly he was able to get in front of plenty of pucks. His 176 blocks were a career-high that ranked eighth in the NHL — and his blocks/60 (7.60) came in below just Alec Martinez and Nick Seeler among players with at least 40 games played.
Unlike Oleksiak, Savard also stays out of the box. Despite ranking second on the Montreal Canadiens in ice time last year (22:23), he ranked 11th in penalties taken (12) and did not register a major.
Savard is like Oleksiak in that he's a defensively focused player who uses his size as obstacle that offences must contend with, but doesn't deploy his bulk as a wrecking ball.
The heaviest goalie: Anthony Stolarz, Florida Panthers - 243 pounds
Stolarz has never been a star at the NHL level, and in his six seasons in the league he's never started more than 28 games. That said, his career save percentage (.911) and GSAA (+4.6) are both solid — even if his 2022-23 was a bit of a mess.
Stolarz joined his fourth organization this offseason and his size has always been a big part of his appeal.
He's not only a big man, but a long one at 6-foot-6. His promise led him to be drafted 45th overall, protected in the 2017 expansion draft, and ultimately traded for Cam Talbot in 2019.
His most recent contract was a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers to become the team's third goaltender, so that gives a sense of where his stock sits around the NHL.
The lightest goalie: Leevi Meriläinen, Ottawa Senators, 158 pounds
Meriläinen has been an oddball from the moment he appeared on NHL radars. The Senators drafted him 71st overall back in 2020, despite the fact he was unranked by major scouting services and expected to go undrafted.
At the time, most of his meaningful experience came on youth teams within the Finnish Kärpät organization. In cases where a team goes off the board to select a player, they often have outstanding physical characteristics, but in this case, Meriläinen's standout trait was a lack of size.
Despite an absence of bulk, the Finnish netminder has come a long way. His 2022-23 campaign was memorable in particular as he had a strong season with Kärpät, played at the World Juniors, debuted at the AHL level and even had a two-game NHL cameo with the Senators.
Between the top league in Finland and the AHL, he managed a .920 save percentage, and his debut with Belleville was one to remember.
— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) April 2, 2023
It's too early in the youngster's professional career to know precisely if he'll be able to compensate for his lack of size at the highest level, but he describes his style as "active" and says he loves to use his hands.
The tallest goalie: Mads Søgaard, Ottawa Senators, 6-foot-7
One year before going off the board for a small goalie in Meriläinen, the Senators drafted a monster in Søgaard. The massive Dane is a far more conventional prospect who went 37th overall in the 2019 draft following a season where he ranked fourth in the WHL in save percentage (.921).
Søgaard has held his own at the AHL level in three stints with the Belleville Senators with a .905 save percentage, but his first taste of the NHL has been rough. In 21 games at the highest level, he has an .889 save percentage and -7.8 GSAA.
That's not nearly enough data to give up on the 22-year-old, and he did have some promising sequences — like this game ender:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 11, 2023
With Anton Forsberg out indefinitely, Søgaard is likely to get some time in Ottawa's crease, where his length will continue to serve him well.
The shortest goalie: Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators, 5-foot-11
There are four goaltenders listed at 5-foot-11, but Saaros played the most games of the bunch in 2022-23 and deserves to be spotlighted following an excellent season.
Saaros is one of the NHL's elite goaltenders. He's finished in the top six in Vezina Trophy voting in three consecutive seasons while leading all netminders in ice time for two straight years.
The easiest explanation for the Finn's success is that he compensates for his lack of size with elite athleticism and lateral movement ability.
It's not fair to compare him to Dominik Hašek — who is probably the best goaltender of all time — but he a similar knack for propelling himself around the crease in improbable ways and stopping pucks that seem destined to touch the twine.
There are also statistics that indicate that Saros does a better job of squaring up shooter than other goaltenders, positioning himself in a way that resulted in shooters hitting him in the chest.
With a combination of acrobatic ability — some of which can be attributed to his diminutive stature — and a gift for positioning, Saros shows that you don't have to be a behemoth to produce elite results in the crease.