Daily Hab-it: The glue guy
By Arpon Basu
Published Tuesday, May 31, 2011 11:18PM EDT
A team is a difficult nut to crack.
The people who make up that team often don't know it themselves, but things happen over the course of time that affect the way each component of that team performs – whether it's in business, or on a hockey rink.
Over the two years he's been here, there have been numerous occasions where it's been made clear that Hal Gill is a key component of what makes the Canadiens a team in the truest sense of that word.
So when news leaked Tuesday that Gill and the Canadiens had come to terms on a one-year deal maintaining his $2.25 million salary, no one should have been surprised, nor should they complain.
If you feel the salary figure is too high, that's your right.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins felt the same way, and I can assure you they regretted letting him walk while Gill was smothering Sidney Crosby in the 2010 playoffs. And don't think the performance of the Bruins' top line in this year's playoffs went unnoticed by other GMs around the league.
But the most important group that needed to be satisfied were the ones in that Canadiens dressing room, the ones who deal with Gill on a day-to-day basis, the ones who will scream to anyone who listens just how important he is to the team.
You don't lowball a player with that kind of stature, and I think the Canadiens proved it by making Gill the first player on the team to be re-signed.
Assessing his impact from the outside
Gill's impact began being felt almost as soon as he arrived in Montreal as a Canadiens group that was still trying to find its identity was helped along by his influence.
But again, things like that are very difficult to ascertain for outsiders – and I include the media in that group. While we may get access to speak to players, and sometimes they will even open up to us and tell us things they might not be authorized to, it never allows a clear picture of the dressing room dynamic to be fully drawn.
For the most part, the media needs to put together a puzzle of that dynamic piece by piece.
In Gill's case, however, that puzzle is not of the 1,000-piece jigsaw variety, it is more like a kiddie puzzle with four big pieces that you should be able to put together with your eyes closed.
Last season, the day after the Canadiens were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers, Josh Gorges spoke at length about Gill. Here's what I wrote back then:
"Gorges spoke very candidly after the season ended about the metamorphosis that took place on the Canadiens. He spoke about how Hal Gill and Scott Gomez butted heads for almost the entire season on how the game should be played - in Gill's conservative way or in Gomez's freelancing, loosey-goosey offensive way. Gorges described their locker room debates on the subject as "bickering matches," until they ultimately took each other aside and realized they both just wanted to win (clearly, Gill won the argument)."
"It took us a full season, all 82 games, until we got to the playoffs. Actually, it was probably after Game 4 against Washington, but then it clicked," Gorges said that day. "People stood up and said this was the way we were going to play, and if you weren't willing to do that, you weren't accepted in the group. You were an outsider. And as those outsiders became fewer and fewer, it became harder for the ones that were left not to buy in."
To put us back in context of where Gorges' head was at when he spoke, he was coming off a playoff run that served as his coming out party as an emerging shutdown defenceman and leader in this league. It was an emergence he owed, in large part, to Gill.
When Pierre Gauthier announced that Gorges would be lost for the rest of the season to reconstructive knee surgery back in December, a piece of the Gill puzzle emerged from a very unlikely source.
Jacques Martin was asked the following morning about the evolution of Gorges as a player, the underlying motivation of which was to emphasize how big of a loss this was to the team.
"Josh made more of a commitment to his career halfway through the year last year," Martin responded. "He realized what it takes to play at a certain level, the kind of commitment it takes not only on the ice, but off the ice in terms of preparation. I think Hal Gill has been a positive influence on helping Josh achieve what he's achieved."
A year after making those comments about Gill on post-mortem day, Gorges was back at it last month a day after Montreal's Game 7 loss in Boston. He couldn't have been much more definitive of his thoughts than this:
"Talking with some of the staff today, the first thing I said was that no matter what happens, we have to get Hal back. You don't see it enough watching the games, a lot of people just look at numbers to figure out how good a player he is. But what he brings to this team is invaluable. It can't be replaced. He's kind of the cornerstone of what we're trying to build and the direction that we want to send this team in. If you lose that, you're losing a big piece of how this dressing room is put together."
Then there's the two main building blocks of this team – Carey Price and P.K. Subban.
Renaud Lavoie at RDS wrote a profile of Gill before the 2010 playoffs, and a good portion of it was devoted to the friendship he had developed with Price. But it also makes mention of two key changes we saw in Price over the course of his struggles last season, two changes that fueled his bounceback year this past season.
First, Gill told him to stop showing up his defencemen when they mess up on a goal. Second, and perhaps most importantly, he told Price to have fun.
The results of that advice are impossible to ignore, because the change in Price's temperament this season – and even late last season while he was riding the bench – was palpable.
On Subban, I'm not sure I need to get into the specifics of that relationship because they've been well documented. Gill has taught him an enormous amount on being a professional, on handling the media, on handling himself. Subban still has a lot left to learn and it's a good thing Gill is back to teach him, because the Canadiens will likely benefit from those lessons long after Gill is gone.
"When I come to the rink every day, whether it's after a tough loss or a big win, you look at a guy like him," Subban said of his defence partner a day after the playoffs ended. "You want to know, what's Hal like today? What's he like after a bad loss? What's he like after a big win? You look at guys like Brian Gionta, like Hal Gill, they're the same all the time. They never change. They never get too high, they never get too low. That's just the experience of it because they know as you high as you go, you're going to come back down at some point."
Besides, he's a pretty good player, too
In this entire argument, not one mention was even made of what Gill can do on the ice. While he is painfully slow, he is a player whose talents become more valuable as the season progresses and as referees become a bit more reluctant to call penalties.
He suddenly becomes a little more difficult to beat off the rush, a little more difficult to beat in the corners.
And when the Canadiens do take a penalty, Gill essentially wipes out his side of the ice. Plus, with him and Tomas Plekanec aboard, I believe the Canadiens have two of the league's top 5-on-3 penalty killers.
But even if none of that were true, even if Gill was a middling defenceman who deserved no more than 10 minutes of ice time per night, I would still endorse this signing because I'm almost never sure of anything that goes on inside the Canadiens dressing room.
Except in Gill's case, the body of evidence is simply too strong that his personality, his work ethic and his passion for winning are integral to the success of this team.
In fact, they are key components of what make the Canadiens a team, period.