ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Rocco Grimaldi was 5, those who ran the community league in which he played hockey deemed the little fireball too aggressive and put him with the 9-year-olds.
"I did really well," Grimaldi recalled. "I loved playing against them."
And so began a trend.
Grimaldi, now 18, is 5 feet 6, 163 pounds. But he is so fast, so skilled and has such a good shot, he is projected by some as a first-round pick in the NHL draft that begins tonight.
If Grimaldi is available, the Lightning would strongly consider taking him with the 27th overall pick.
"I don't think size is any factor for us," said Al Murray, Tampa Bay's director of amateur scouting. "We'd rather be more concerned about the size of the fight in the dog than the size of the dog in the fight."
To emphasize the point, Grimaldi, a center NHL Central Scouting ranked as the No. 32 skater in North America, was one of six prospects the Lightning interviewed Thursday.
"I've proven myself at every level," said Grimaldi, with 39 goals (17 on the power play) and 73 points in 58 games last season for the United States under-18 national team development program. "I trust my ability. I know what I can do. Every day I go to the rink, I work hard and try to outwork everybody else. People think size is a disadvantage, but it is what drives me more. It's not going to hold me back."
Because the Lightning picks so late, it will be difficult for the team to hone in on one player.
General manager Steve Yzerman could trade up. But unless he puts together an attractive package — "And I don't feel we're in a position to do that," he said — he could move up only a few notches.
He could trade down and add a second-round pick. But those decisions won't be made until he sees how the draft plays out.
Whenever the Lightning picks, Yzerman said, decisions will be in the hands of his scouting staff, with Murray the tiebreaker in case of disagreements.
"I can have my philosophy on the types of players and the ingredients and what skills that we're looking for in a Tampa Bay Lightning player," Yzerman said. "But at the end of the day, (the scouts are) the ones out there. They know the players."
And what they know of Grimaldi, who is committed to play next season for the University of North Dakota, they like.
Born in Anaheim, Calif., Grimaldi and his family moved to Auburn Hills, Mich., when he was 12 so he could play with better competition. It paid off. Grimaldi played in the past two under-18 world championships, and he had a combined four goals and 18 points to help the United States twice win gold.
At the prospects combine this year, Grimaldi's 6.8 percent body fat was tied for the lowest. He was fifth with a 29.8-inch vertical leap and fourth with 39 pushups.
"He's definitely the hardest worker on the team," said goaltender John Gibson, also in the national team development program. "He's a leader both on and off the ice, and he hates to lose. Put him in any situation (on the ice) and he'll be successful."
As for his size?
"It fits my game perfectly," Grimaldi said. "Think about it. How often do you get to practice against a guy who is 5 foot 6 and who is so small and so shifty? Not often. I like to challenge defensemen, keep them on their heels and use my speed to drive them wide and outsmart them as well."
Still, considering how the league's players have generally gotten bigger, taking Grimaldi would be a gutsy call.
Then again, Tampa Bay has done pretty well with 5-foot-7 Marty St. Louis.
"And I would compare him to Marty," said Darryl Plandowski, Tampa Bay's head amateur scout. "He's a special guy."