Monday, February 20, 2012

Into the Void

There's an old Sam Pollock quote about guys who are "good in the room." The straightforward GM, when told a guy was "good in the room" tersely replied, "Then he should stay in the room." Leadership off the ice, in other words, isn't worth much if the guy isn't able to bring it on the ice as well. Sadly, that's what happened to Hal Gill in Montreal. While nobody is saying he's not a warrior or not a great teammate, the truth is that this year the already-slow defenceman lost another step. He's still money on the PK, expecially 5-on-3s, but his ice time at even-strength dropped this year, for good reason. So, good guy or not, as a hockey player, Gill likely wouldn't have been back next year. In that case, Pierre Gauthier was right to trade him and get some return before letting him go for nothing in the summer.

That doesn't mean it's not really sad to see him go. Gill has been an alternate captain since his arrival in Montreal because everybody respected him. He was one of the guys who stood up in the room before Game Seven against the Caps in the 2010 playoffs and told his teammates he believed they could win that game. Then he went out and helped shut down Alex Ovechkin and mates. His departure takes away another piece of the team that was so much fun to watch because the players believed in themselves. There was a little bit of magic in the air in those playoffs and Gill was a big part of that. That edition of the team didn't win, but they made us believe they could, and that winning was close. Gill's trade further diminishes the sense of optimism we had then. It leaves a void in the room as well.

When Bob Gainey overhauled the Canadiens three years ago, he brought in intesnse, focused veterans who knew about winning. Hal Gill, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and Scott Gomez were proven competitors with Cup rings stashed away in their home safes. Michael Cammalleri and Jaroslav Spacek were dedicated pros as well, even though they hadn't yet had their names inscribed in silver. Together they formed a core group of leaders who were able to pull the team together and steer it on a steady path. This season has destroyed that group, and lack of leadership is likely a contributing factor to all the blown leads we've seen drive the Habs lower and lower in the standings.

With the trades of Spacek, Cammalleri and now Gill, with the departure of Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik last summer, with the long-term injuries to Gionta and Andrei Markov and the diminished on-ice contributions of Gill and Gomez, the leadership group is mostly gone. That's not to say Josh Gorges and Erik Cole aren't as intense and dedicated as Gill and Gionta, but they're two guys in a room full of youth and inexperience. Tomas Plekanec is a quiet leader, but sometimes a team needs a big man with a big mouth to spark it in the room, and with Gill's departure, that element of team leadership has disappeared.

Even though guys like Gill and Spacek were losing it on the ice somewhat, they were important in the team's leadership structure. The void they leave behind must now be filled by the guys who are still feeling their way on the ice. It's a good thing, in a way, because it gives young players who would otherwise have stayed quiet in deference to the veterans a chance to develop as leaders. It allows them to grow up together and grow into the roles vacated by the departed players. The sad part is that it also gives us, the fans, the unavoidable sense of starting over, again. What seemed so possible two years ago, with guys like Gill spurring the team on from within, now seems very far away. Max Pacioretty, Louis Leblanc, P.K.Subban, David Desharnais, Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller, Raphael Diaz and Carey Price have great potential to be contributors to a winner some day. They still have a lot to learn on the ice, though. And now, with more veterans likely leaving before next week, they also have to learn how to take a more active role in the room and teach themselves how to win.

If these young players have learned anything from guys like Hal Gill and the others of this year's departed veterans, it should be how to conduct themselves with dignity in the rink and outside it. They should have learned how to prepare themselves to do their best every night, how to support their teammates as they try to do the same, and how to be good "in the room." While Gill and the others are gone, the lessons they taught by example will help the kids they've left behind. There's a great deal of value in that which can't be quantified by the acquisition of a second-round draft pick.


G said...

I think Gill will be missed even more. He may have been slow but he was big. He may have blocked shots but he blocked players as well. Spacek and Kaberle are a wash, except Kaberle can be moved to a team dreaming of the Cup - why not he was last year. Cammalleri? He wanted to play on the perimeter and seemed to be a one trick pony. Bourque isn't a ball of fire but he will play North/South.

Pleks is a mystery. Buckets of talent but never used to his satisfaction I am not sure he "motivates" his linemates. If he plays with "self-motivated" players he can rack them up, otherwise he seems best when he is left alone 4 on 4. A "look what I can do" type of guy. Probably just needs someone else to do the work, feed him big time, so the points climb and he understands that others can make you better as well as the opposite.

moeman said...

Nice article (and tribute) that balances the Habs' greying vets and growing kids. I think Cole becomes the next one to look up to (all due respect to Gionta). Like Gill he is happy to be in Montreal and plays hard every shift. I'll end with what I believe a lot of us want, write more J.T.

the Maritimer said...

I look at a team like Chicago that drafted well and let their youth grow together to become their own leaders. Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Bolland, Niemi, etc. Then they added a couple of high end UFA's like Campbell and Hossa and they were off to the races. The players you listed for Montreal although not as dynamic as the Blackhawks should be the new leaders in a year or two.

I hope Gainey and Gauthier have realized you cannot "buy" a championship team like the Rangers tried to do for many years and they tried to do in '09. Let this present core develop and add to it as necessary.

Steve said...

Nice tribute, shutdown hockey, nobody did it better. We should hire him as defence coach the minitue he retires.