There was a time when being 5 feet 10 inches tall was considered a death sentence for the career of any hockey defenseman with aspirations of playing in the NHL.
To NHL general managers, bigger was better. A d-man needed to be tall, giving him the reach to to block passing lanes. A d-man needed to have bulk, so he could move opposing forwards out from in front of the net and give the goaltender clear looks at shots.
But this weekend Olen Zellweger proves that size doesn’t always matter.
The diminutive Everett Silvertips defenseman is expected to be taken in the earlier rounds of this weekend’s NHL draft, which is taking place virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, with the first round on Friday and rounds two through seven on Saturday. And Zellweger will be hearing his name called despite his small stature.
“It’s definitely something I take a lot of pride in,” Zellweger said about being able to succeed as a smaller defenseman. “People maybe knock me a bit on my size, but that’s not something I worry about. I just focus on playing my game at the highest level I can.”
Zellweger, a 17-year-old from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, is coming off a sensational 2021 season that saw his draft stock skyrocket, despite the coronavirus pandemic-shortened campaign. He tallied 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 11 games with Everett before being summoned to play for Canada at the U-18 World Championships. At the U-18s he had eight points (one goal, seven assists) in seven games as Canada claimed the gold medal. He finished 45th among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for the 2021 draft, which projects him in the second- or third-round range.
It wasn’t that long ago that Zellweger’s height would have disqualified him from draft selection all together in the eyes of many NHL scouts. But philosophies have changed. Hockey has evolved into a faster game where speed of foot and speed of thought are increasingly important, and that’s led to the rise of the smaller defenseman. These are players who are able to use their speed, elusiveness and intelligence to transition the puck and initiate the offense. Among the NHL defensemen listed under 6 feet are Colorado’s dynamic young duo of Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, Minnesota captain Jared Spurgeon, Vancouver sensation Quinn Hughes and several others.
Zellweger fits this model to a T.
“I guess I’ve always been smaller,” Zellweger said. “I think I started growing later than most guys, and I have quite a late birthday (Sept. 10, which is just five days before this year’s draft cutoff), so I’m used to it. It’s always something I’ve had to deal with and it helped me become the player I am today.”
So what is it about Zellweger that allows him, as a shorter defenseman, to succeed against players who are considerably taller?
“Obviously his skating is No. 1: the way he can walk the line, retrieve pucks, create separation, maintain gap control,” Everett coach Dennis Williams said. “His stick skills are very high-end, and he’s very good at using his deception and hockey IQ. But then there’s his compete level and drive. We see his spin-o-rama against Seattle a couple years ago, but he also has those intangibles with how hard he battles for pucks, how hard he plays without the puck. He’s an all-around player and a modern-day defenseman.”
It also helps that Zellweger is dedicated to his craft. He’s universally regarded as the hardest worker on Everett’s team, and he spent countless hours during the pandemic honing his game off the ice. One of the reasons he’s able to compete against bigger forwards is because he’s built himself into one of the strongest players in the squad.
“He’s a guy who when he showed up here and the guys were housed at the dorms (at Everett Community College the past season), he brought his stickhandling tiles,” Williams recounted. “We got noise complaints because he was making noise in his dorm room from stickhandling. He’s one of those guys who travels with everything because he doesn’t want to take a day off.”
— Olen Zellweger (@OlenZellweger) March 25, 2020
Under normal conditions Zellweger would attend the draft in person. But since it’s virtual, he’ll be watching with his family from Moose Lake near Bonnyville, Alberta. He said he’s spoken to just about every NHL team, and there have been some projections that have seen him climb to as high as late in the first round.
“I’m excited and a little nervous,” Zellweger said. “Obviously I don’t know where I’ll be selected or by which team. I’ll just try to take it all in and enjoy the time.”
In addition to Zellweger, Everett has two other players who could be taken in this year’s NHL draft. Goaltender Braden Holt was ranked 15th by NHL Central Scouting among North American goaltenders, while recently signed Finnish winger Niko Huuhtanen was ranked 49th among European skaters. Both are considered later-round candidates.
Williams, Zellweger and defenseman Ronan Seeley are among those who will take part in Canada’s summer development camp for the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championships, Hockey Canada announced Wednesday. Williams was selected as an assistant coach for the team, while Zellweger and Seeley were among the 51 players invited to attend. The camp begins next Wednesday and runs through Aug. 4 in Tsuut’ina Nation, Alberta, and will begin the evaluation process for the team that goes to World Juniors on Dec. 26 – Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta. … Former Everett player and assistant coach Brennan Sonne was hired as the head coach of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, the team announced Wednesday. Sonne, who played for the Tips from 2005-07 and was an assistant coach from 2014-17, spent the previous four seasons as the head coach of the Ducs d’Angers in France’s top professional league. He succeeds another former Everett player and coach, Mitch Love, who was hired by the NHL’s Calgary Flames to be the head coach of their AHL affiliate in Stockton, California.