Had a 5-foot-9-inch defenseman shown up at a Providence practice a decade ago, he might have had a short stay.
“We probably would have sent him down the road to Brown University or Providence [College],” joked Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who was coach of the Providence Bruins at the time. “You’re in the wrong building. But that’s the new NHL.”
Though the league is increasingly smaller, lighter, and quicker, defensemen that small remain relatively rare. Of the 326 defensemen who saw NHL action last season, 42 checked in under 6 feet. Six of them were under 5-10. Two of them were in Boston’s top six.
Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk, along with Connor Clifton and Steven Kampfer — both listed at 5-11 — gave the Bruins the shortest D corps in the league last year, even with 6-9 Zdeno Chara and 6-5 Brandon Carlo in the mix. They fell one game short of lifting the Stanley Cup.
So here comes Cooper Zech, hoping to one day make the Boston back end — where Chara has roamed the last 14 years — a land of Lilliputians.
After producing eight goals and 20 assists in 36 games as a freshman at Ferris State, leading his team in scoring and finishing 20th in the nation in points per game among defensemen, Zech chose the Bruins last March over several AHL deals. He is likely to start the year in Providence, but if he develops as expected, his size — 5-9, 170 — would be no shortcoming.
“I looked into how Boston plays,” Zech said. “They love their small D-men up here. Puck-moving D. Guys that can make plays. It looked like a perfect fit. I’m hoping the next few years, this is where I can be.”
In Chara’s rookie year, 1997-98, the entire league had 17 defensemen under 6 feet, and none under 5-10. One of the shortest was Don Sweeney, now in his fifth season as Bruins general manager.
Today, those in Zech’s shoes look up to Krug, who could be among the game’s highest-paid defensemen when his current deal ($5.25 million annually) runs out next July 1.
“For sure,” said Zech, who grew up near Ann Arbor with an eye on the former Michigan State captain. “If I’m watching the Bruins, that’s who I’m watching. I hope I can follow in his footsteps.”
Minnesota is the only other team with two 5-9ers on the back end: Jared Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Spurgeon, listed at 5-9 and just 167, produced a 14-29—43 line in 82 games, logging a team-high 24:08 per game. Last Sunday he signed a seven-year, $53.025 million extension that will pay him $9 million in salary and bonuses in the first two seasons. Shorty got paid.
Maybe that’s the future for Zech, who saw 12 regular-season games (four assists) and four in the playoffs (two goals) after joining Providence. He said it was “a blast” to be a pro, since the books weren’t for him. “When I was done for the day, I could go home and think more [about] hockey,” he said, “and treat my body better than sitting in a chair studying all day.”
He says he added 15 pounds since the spring, though he’s not sure if he’ll wind up as bulky as Krug (186 pounds). He plans to soak up all the knowledge he can from coach Jay Leach and his staff, “knowing I’m going to be here for a while,” he said. “Taking in what the coaches say. I know it’s going to be used for a long time.”
He’s already showing Cassidy his offense, even though defense was first mentioned when Zech’s name came up this week.
“He’s got good hockey instincts. He breaks up plays using his head and his stick, so yeah, in that regard,” Cassidy said, when asked if Zech impressed him. “He’s a small guy who competes hard. He’s not afraid to go into traffic, not afraid to get hit.
“For him it’s a matter of, like a lot of young guys, the practice habits. We’ve got to get him started sooner. And then the strength part . . . Sometimes he’s a bit slow-starting. We went through that with Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk, and a lot of them. I think it’s perfectly normal.”