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Habs like return, but Gill’s leadership will be missed

Friday, 02.17.2012 / 4:49 PM / 2012 Trade Deadline

By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com

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Habs like return, but Gill’s leadership will be missed
Habs like return, but Hal Gill’s leadership will be missed.

The Montreal Canadiens lost a major ingredient to their team chemistry and their League-leading penalty kill Friday when general manager Pierre Gauthier traded defenseman Hal Gill and a conditional pick to the Nashville Predators for Blake Geoffrion, Robert Slaney and a second-round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft.

It was that tantalizing return for an impending unrestricted free agent who turns 37 on April 6 that made this trade a no-brainer for the Canadiens, but Gill's presence will most definitely be missed in Montreal, both on the ice and in the dressing room.

"Great teammate, and friend," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta tweeted shortly after the trade. "We'll miss u in the room! But good luck in Nash. The tough part of this business."

That part about Gill being missed in the room should not be taken lightly.

Gill played a major role in helping shape two of the cornerstone pieces of the Canadiens defense moving forward when he partnered with Josh Gorges in 2009-10 and with P.K. Subban last season. And his influence on his teammates was underscored by Gorges following the Canadiens run to the Eastern Conference final in 2010 when he described a season-long confrontation between Gill and Scott Gomez as to the style of game the Canadiens should be playing.

The day following their elimination at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, Gorges described the arguments between Gill and Gomez as "bickering matches."

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"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."

Then last spring, again a day after the Canadiens were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, Gorges made an impassioned plea to have Montreal re-sign Gill.

"Talking with some of the staff today, the first thing I said was that no matter what happens, we have to get Hal back," Gorges said then. "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."

Gill's influence on Subban has been widely documented, teaching him how to be a professional off the ice and how to stay within himself on it.

"@Skillsy 75 (Gill's Twitter handle) will be missed!" Subban tweeted after the trade. "Good luck in Nashville bud!"

"Good luck to @Skillsy75," Mathieu Darche also tweeted. "Sad to see him leave. Great teammate and friend. He will be missed."

So the Predators are clearly adding a positive influence in their dressing room by bringing in Gill, but for whatever reason Gill's limitations on the ice always appeared to overshadow his strengths.

His ability to kill penalties is at an elite level, and in his three seasons in Montreal the Canadiens penalty kill went from 12th in 2009-10 to seventh in 2010-11 to first this season.

It will be interesting to see what impact Gill's departure will have on that special teams unit in Montreal. Subban will now likely be asked to fill most of the 4:00 of shorthanded ice time per game Gill received, second to only Francois Beauchemin of Anaheim among players who have played more than 20 games.

And while Gill did not dish out bone-crunching hits with great regularity, the idea that he was not a physical player with his 6-foot-7, 241-pound frame is largely false. Gill uses that heft to great effectiveness to box players out in front of the net and to rub players out along the boards in his own end. In the playoffs – when the referees tend to become a bit more lenient – that ability shines through even more.

Another area where that big frame is put to good use is in shooting lanes, where Gill is among the League's top shot blockers. He blocked 150 shots his first season in Montreal, 151 last season and he ranks 14th in the League this season with 122 blocked shots despite greatly diminished ice time under new coach Randy Cunneyworth.

Gill's nickname, Skillsy, is a bit of a dig at a player whose skills are often derided and rarely appreciated. But for a team ranked 16th in the NHL on the penalty kill like the Predators are, Gill's skill set may be just what they need.

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