Saturday, 18 February 2012

Farewell Hal Gill

Wow, I thought we were optimistic on what we would get back for Hal Gill when some would float a possible second rounder. I think it was Bob McKenzie of TSN who a week ago said that the Penguins had given up a second rounder for him in 2008, and he had obviously helped them on their Stanley Cup run, but nowadays the Canadiens would be getting a fifth for him or thereabouts. It made sense that his potential trade value was diminished, since he is now about to turn 37, possibly set to retire this off-season, and had seen his icetime dwindle these last few weeks, to the point where the Canadiens used him on their first wave on the penalty kill, but sparingly any other time.

In fact, the Canadiens traded him to the Nashville Predators for an aforementioned second-round draft pick in 2012, plus a solid prospect in Blake Geoffrion, one who can play right now in the NHL, which we kind of need since we have no fourth line to speak of. We also get organizational depth in Robert Slaney, a big rugged winger who is playing in the East Coast League. Nashville will receive a conditional 5th round pick in 2013 if Mr. Geoffrion plays a minimum of 40 games in the NHL next season.

This is a great trade on many levels. In the recent past, the Canadiens have allowed too many unrestricted free agents to leave in the off-season without receiving any compensation in return. This is partly due to organizational philosophy, in that management sees negotiating contracts with its players in season as a distraction. It is also a product of being embroiled in playoff races to the bitter end of the season, whereby the team needs all hands on deck to squeak into the playoffs, followed by a quick exit in the first or second round. This situation didn't allow the team to evaluate its assets properly and maximize their value. As has been discussed ad nauseam, it's probably better, if you're not going to be a strong contender for the Stanley Cup, to be clearly out of the race, near the bottom of the standings, as the trade deadline approaches instead of hovering around 8th place. Being clearly out allows a team to shrewdly convert expiring contracts into future assets, be they draft picks or prospects.

With the Hal Gill trade, the Canadiens aren't losing anything, in that they're trading away a veteran defenceman who had no further value to the team. He wasn't expected to return to the team next fall; he had signed a one-year contract this summer that was widely expected to be his last, at least in Montreal. Further, his contribution the rest of this season would have mattered to a playoff team only, one where his defensive skills against the top offensive players of the other team would be crucial. His remaining on the Canadiens roster would have actually been a hindrance to the team, as he would have taken icetime away from some of the young defencemen the Canadiens are now trying to develop for next season and beyond.

So in a pure hockey sense, and with a view to the future, the Canadiens converted nothing into something. They and the Hamilton Bulldogs are now stronger. The Canadiens have a happy history with second-rounders, perhaps even more so than with first rounders, and they've come up with, among others, such players as P.K. Subban, Mike Ribeiro and José Théodore. We can hope for more of the same. Also, while Blake Geoffrion has not had an easy start to his NHL career, he is a big, strong, talented player who can play centre or wing, and who has won the Hobey Baker trophy in 2010 as the best collegiate player in the U.S.

The Hamilton angle is important, in that the farm team is overmatched this season and this can’t be good for the youngsters, to lose night after night. Next season is expected to be another difficult one for them as well, as there will be an onslaught of U.S. college, major junior and European players joining that team. There will be a lot of talent, and that bodes well for the future, but there will also be a lot of green, inexperienced players in the pro game. With Mr. Slaney and potentially Mr. Geoffrion, they get reinforcements, more mature guys with size, and that will help all the first-year players, they'll benefit from the more veteran leadership.

A very speculative angle is that we’ve possibly lubricated the way for further discussions with the Preds, if any other giant defencemen were available to be had at the right (steep) price.

It wouldn't be right not to examine the human side of this story. Mr. Gill adapted well to the Canadiens and Montréal, and seemed happy and provided good leadership. He was universally liked by the press and his teammates and coaches. Montreal fans, leery at first, soon adopted him as one of their own.

I had a great change in attitude regarding Mr. Gill during his tenure as a Canadien. I gagged when I first found out he had been signed to a contract, and couldn’t believe this clutch and grab artist, so big and so slow, and a former Bruin and Leaf to boot, was now on my team. Slowly, the stink wore off, he wore the uniform proudly and I learned to appreciate his game, especially since he wasn’t allowed to hook and hold anymore. I appreciated his sense of humour and was glad for his veteran presence on the bench and the dressing room. And now that he’s been traded away, and brought back this comparative bounty, I have nothing but respect and good feelings for this man. I wish him the best of luck.

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