Underrated, undersized Spurgeon is improbably one of NHL's best D-men
Jared Spurgeon is hardly noticeable for the casual hockey fan watching the Minnesota Wild.
At 5-foot-9 and 166 pounds, the Wild captain is one of the least physically imposing players in the NHL. In fact, he's billed as the sixth-lightest player in the league this season and the lightest defenseman.
While a lot of the best players in his weight class (Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Hughes) make up for their small stature with dynamic offensive ability, Spurgeon isn't overly flashy. His brilliance isn't found on highlight reels or box scores. He's posted 40 or more points twice in his 14-year career, which is good for a blue-liner, but nothing that will get him on the cover of a video game or make him a must-have player for your fantasy team.
Spurgeon, though, is one of the most underrated players of his era. He's finished in the top 20 in Norris Trophy voting five times, but there's an argument to be made he should've finished higher in several of those seasons. He's somehow never cracked the top 10.
Virtually every piece of underlying data shows Spurgeon has been one of the best two-way defensemen for the better part of a decade. Using expected goals above replacement - a catch-all metric aimed to signify a player's all-around impact - Spurgeon has ranked in the top 15 among defensemen every campaign since 2014-15, notably finishing first in 2019-20 and fourth last season.
His player card over the last three seasons is off the charts. (Numerical ratings are percentiles.)
The 2023-24 campaign hasn't gone perfectly. He missed the first 13 games with an upper-body injury, and the Wild, as a team, got off to a poor start. But Spurgeon has remained highly effective, especially defensively. Among rearguards with at least 100 five-on-five minutes, Spurgeon ranks first in both expected goals percentage and expected goals against per 60 minutes.
Despite being 34 years old, one of the smallest players around, and playing on the NHL's 27th-ranked team by points percentage, Spurgeon is still thriving while routinely being matched up against the top players on opposing teams. So, how has he been able to do it?
'Growing up, he was always the best'
Spurgeon's journey to the NHL is remarkable. Growing up in Edmonton, he played forward until the age of 14 before moving to defense. At the 2004 WHL Draft, he didn't hear his name until the Spokane Chiefs grabbed him in the 10th round. The New York Islanders selected him in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft but chose not to sign him, even after a productive junior career, which included winning the 2008 Memorial Cup.
"I obviously tried to use that as a bit of motivation for myself," Spurgeon told theScore about going unsigned by the Islanders.
Spurgeon opted to sign with the Wild in 2010, and the rest is history. He's been a staple on their blue line ever since and is in his fourth season as team captain.
He wasn't alone in his quest to make the NHL. He and Tyler Ennis - a 13-year NHL veteran - were good friends growing up, played on the same teams together, and remain close today. Spurgeon believes his friendship with Ennis - also undersized at 5-foot-9, 161 pounds - was beneficial to both of their careers.
"We always wanted the best for each other, but in the gym when training it was always pushing each other because we were both always told we were undersized and weren't going to make it," Spurgeon said. "So, we had this chip on our shoulder. We both made sure we were pushing each other to get to that next level."
Spurgeon and Ennis were even able to live out a dream and play together in the NHL during the latter's lone campaign with the Wild in 2017-18.
As a kid, Spurgeon idolized Doug Weight, who starred for Spurgeon's hometown Oilers from 1992-01. But as he grew older and moved to defense, he tried to model his game after blue-liners who fit his playing style, like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle.
One thing Spurgeon shares with all of them is elite hockey IQ. Ennis knew from an early age that Spurgeon thought the game differently than his peers.
"His hockey IQ is better than everyone else's," Ennis, who now plays for Mannheim in Germany's top professional league, told theScore. "He was like that as a kid, but nobody gave him much of an opportunity or a chance. Growing up, he was always the best.
"Especially in our era, there's a huge bias against players that were small. They got overlooked a lot. I think what helped make our friendship so strong is that we were both small and going through the same troubles together, battling adversity together, and proving people wrong together."
NHL scouts may always have a size bias when evaluating defensemen, but things are beginning to improve. If Spurgeon came through the ranks now, he'd likely be picked higher than the sixth round, and the Islanders probably find a way to get him signed.
"It took a little longer for everyone to realize that smaller D-men can play. I think now you see a lot more smaller D-men and puck-moving D-men playing important situations," Spurgeon said. "The rule changes definitely changed the game for smaller defensemen that can move the puck, skate, and get up and down the ice."
'He's actually so hard to play against'
While the conditions for smaller defensemen have improved over the years, numerous challenges remain. It can be more difficult to clear bodies out from in front of the net, and there's a significant reach disadvantage with the stick. But Spurgeon's brain seemingly enables him to overcome them all.
"He's so smart," fellow Wild defenseman Dakota Mermis told theScore ahead of a game in October. "The confidence he plays with, the details he has with his stick, all of the things that make up for his lack of height and size. He uses leverage to his advantage."
When Spurgeon came into the league, opposing forwards might've thought they were in for a cakewalk. Newer forwards may look at him across the faceoff and expect an easy night. But those who've faced him over the years know that offense will be tough to come by when he's on the ice.
"A guy like that, maybe at first, you don't think it would be that hard to play against because he's smaller, but he's actually so hard to play against just because he's always in your face, always has good gaps, and competes so hard," said Frederick Gaudreau, who played against Spurgeon on two occasions with the Nashville Predators before joining the Wild in 2021. "To me, he's an amazing player."
Despite being so hard to play against, Spurgeon rarely leaves his team shorthanded. Even with his reach disadvantage and the tough minutes he logs, he's somehow never racked up more than 20 penalty minutes throughout a season. It's a big reason why was a Lady Byng finalist twice.
While discipline is partially about not committing physical infractions, there's also a mental aspect. Spurgeon rarely puts himself in positions that require desperation plays.
"I don't even remember him ever making a mistake," Ennis said. "It sounds ridiculous, but he just doesn't make mistakes. His decision-making is always right."
Maybe if Spurgeon was more outspoken (teammates say he's a lead-by-example type of captain), he would get more attention. Perhaps playing in a bigger market would've earned him a few more Norris Trophy votes over the years.
But those who've followed his career closely know how great he is, and that's what really matters. After all, for a shutdown defenseman, sometimes going unnoticed can be a good thing.
(Analytics source: Evolving-Hockey)