BROSSARD – Hal Gill may be gone, but his legacy in the Canadiens dressing room isn’t going anywhere.
One of the more vocal players on and off the ice over the past three seasons, Gill was never shy about imparting some veteran wisdom on his younger Habs teammates. After being traded on Friday afternoon, the 36-year-old blue-liner is in Nashville now, but the lessons he’s doled out along the way will likely be paying dividends for some of his protégés for years to come.
After arriving at training camp not sure if he’d be sticking around Montreal or boarding a bus to Hamilton, Raphael Diaz has excelled in his debut NHL season. It might be his puck control that earned the 25-year-old a trip to Ottawa to take part in the SuperSkills event during All-Star weekend, but there’s another part of his game that has come a long way thanks to his former defense partner.
“There are different things I learned from Hal that he would tell me on the ice or on the bench. The biggest thing was to always be talking on the ice. That’s definitely not a problem for him,” cracked Diaz of his old mentor. “But he really stressed communication and knowing where guys are on the ice and making sure everyone knows what you’re going to do.”
Watching Gill do what he did best also helped the Swiss blue-liner develop a penchant for throwing himself in harm’s way on a nightly basis.
“On the ice he just blocks every shot and he makes the game really simple. I think that’s why he’s played over 1,000 games in the NHL,” explained Diaz, who leads all NHL rookies with 93 blocked shots of his own to go with his 16 points, second among rookie defenseman. “I watched and learned from the way he does it but he’s way bigger than me so he covers a lot more ground with his long legs. In front of the net he’s great at cutting off passing lanes and making it hard for the opposing forwards. That’s one of the things you see him do that guys can learn from.”
While the Canadiens were only forced to kill off three Sabres power plays in their first game without the penalty kill specialist, Gill’s replacements were put to the test when Max Pacioretty got called for tripping with just under a minute to go in overtime.
“I think a lot guys were thinking about it, like this is kind of Hal Gill’s specialty,” admitted Yannick Weber of the team’s successful 4-on-3 kill to preserve the tie. “I think we did a good job. P.K. [Subban] stepped into that role pretty well and he can handle that situation, too. It was good that we could get away with that and get the shootout win.”
With Gill out of the equation, Subban saw his ice time increase to 28:48 on Friday night, his second busiest work load of the season. Diaz and Alexei Emelin also put in more shorthanded minutes than usual in Buffalo, each getting 1:48 on the penalty kill.
The void left by Gill’s departure next to Josh Gorges on the PK is hard to miss, but there’s no place his absence will be felt more than inside the Habs dressing room.
“I feel like I’m expecting a joke that’s not coming,” mentioned Weber, whose stall was next to Gill’s in the room. “Hal is a funny guy and a good guy in the room and with the guys in here. There’s not much about him you guys don’t know. He cares about the young guys, he cares about the team and he’s a real team player. He wants to win and he’s a winner. He was a perfect role model for me as a young guy.”
Some of the younger Habs will be shouldering more responsibility than ever in the coming weeks, but losing the veteran blue-liner also left Randy Cunneyworth with another vacancy to fill.
“You usually go with somebody who’s respected in the dressing room and somebody who has a wealth of experience,” described Cunneyworth on his decision to stitch an ‘A’ to Erik Cole’s jersey for the rest of the season. “[Erik] is a leader in that category and he’s also a guy players look up to.
“He sets the tone in many of our games and he’s not going to just be talking about what we have to do in games, he’s going to be doing it,” stressed the Habs head coach of Cole, who has 144 hits and 44 points in his first year in Montreal. “He’s a guy who does that each and every night and he’s been very consistent in his play. There are a lot of guys who should emulate what they see in Erik Cole.”
Just like they did with another veteran leader.
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
Comments:Weber, Price, Diaz, Cunneyworth
So long, Hal
All in the family
Hal Gill traded to Nashville