Sitting at his locker this morning after the game day skate, Leafs defenceman Hal Gill took to a bit of reminiscing.
A decade ago, Gill arrived in the camp of the Boston Bruins, ready to ramp up his offensive game. Bruins coach Pat Burns watched for a while then called him over in practice.
“It was my third year and I had a couple of goals,” Gill remembers. “Pat said, 'I know you’re trying to be more offensive. Just make the safe play.'”
Hal Gill has one goal in 30 Leafs games, the same total as noted marksman Wade Belak. But the 32-year-old Massachusetts native is among the most dependable blueliners employed by coach Paul Maurice.
At six-foot-seven and with a corresponding footspeed, Hal Gill could have been one of the casualties of the crackdown on obstruction. It has showcased his game instead.
“I think he’s adapted better to the new rules than anyone his size,” said Ian White, his partner for all of last year and the first bit of this year.
“Hal knows how to handle speed and he always does the smart thing with the puck. At the same time, I’ve got to be there to support him and read off him, otherwise he has to ring it out or give it away.”
Gill’s failsafe game is actually calibrated on risk. With his big limbs, he can throw a player off balance a moment before the player expects. He can tie a player up, legally, longer than most.
But he is also immensely vulnerable. He takes longer to recover and when he is burned, it is apparent to everybody in the back row. Like an elephant, he’s great going forward. Not so great going back.
That’s why, more than any player Hal Gill’s game is dependent on what his teammates are doing.
“If the forwards are playing well defensively, I fit in perfectly with that. My game feeds off that,” he said.
“When they come back, I can be more aggressive. Initiating is always better than reacting. Getting the jump on a guy is the whole key.”
Gill is a graduate of the Ray Bourque Finishing School for Defenceman. As a rookie, he was paired with the Bruins’ Hall of Famer.
Bourque, one of the most successful risk takers to play the position, infused in his partner an appreciation of risk.
“The first thing you learned playing with Ray was that giving the puck to Ray was always the best play. He always told me, do everything hard. Don’t try to get cute by feathering a pass somewhere. I must have led the league in icings that first year”
Now, united with Ray Bourque’s game by Hal Gill’s experiences, White is learning the same thing.
“It’s a neat thing, the never-ending cycle,” he said. “You take what you learn and use it to help the other guy.”
Notes: The Leafs and Tampa Bay Lighting tangle tonight in a battle of teams presently out of the NHL Eastern Conference top eight. The Lightning have been great at home (11-3-2) but dreadful on the road (2-10-1) so far. They are lead by the great Vincent Lecavalier who leads the league in scoring with 19 goals and 45 points in 29 games. The Leafs Mats Sundin and Tampa sniper Martin St. Louis each sit in the top 10 with 36 points. Expect Vesa Toskala to make his seventh straight start. This is the Leafs final home appearance before they play seven in a row on the road. They do not return home until December 29 when they play the New York Rangers.