Hal Gill had never been traded throughout his 10 years in the NHL.
That all changed this year when the Penguins acquired the rugged blueliner from Toronto at the NHL trade deadline.
Coincidentally, the move came just in time for the Penguins as defenseman Rob Scuderi suffered a broken finger in a game the night Gill was acquired. So, Gill was immediately pressed into duty once he joined the team.
That also meant Gill had very little time to get familiar with and digest the nuances of Pittsburgh’s defensive system as well as a completely new set of defensemen.
“It’s the little things. The little subtleties of in-zone coverage and attack on the rush as well as learning to play with different players,” he said. “It’s a lot easier game when you’re into the swing of things and you’re learning what guys do and different tendencies.”
The adjustment for a defenseman might be a little more difficult than for a forward since any defensive mistakes have a good chance of ending up in back of the net. However, Gill is feeling much more comfortable in Pittsburgh’s defensive zone now.
“It’s not a big difference. It’s still the same game, but it’s just knowing when to drop off a guy or when to pick him up or when to leave him to a forward or when to leave him to your partner. Just little things, but it makes a big difference in the game,” he said. “One little mistake usually leads to another mistake and that’s when opponents get momentum and those are the things you try to stop. It’s getting a little easier to control those things.”
Gill has found a steady defensive pairing with Penguins rookie Kris Letang. The two offer contrasting styles as Letang likes to join the rush and attack, while Gill is more of a defensive stopper. So far, the chemistry is working well between the two Penguins.
“He’s obviously really gifted and can play really well and he’s a good skater. Any little mistake that I make or he makes, he’s pretty good at covering up and getting back into position,” Gill said. “It’s a game of mistakes and we’re going to make them, but I think it’s important to have a guy like him because he can get back and recover well. That makes a huge difference.”
When Letang skates up ice to join the offensive attack, Gill has no problem staying back and covering.
“I want to be the guy he can trust to stay back,” he said. “He can jump up in the play and I can kind of back him up.”
Gill has 23 points on the year (3+20), including three points (1+2) in his first eight games with the Penguins, but knows that’s not his main purpose on the ice.
“When the team plays well, I will get points. When we win 7-1, there will be points out there you’re going to get,” he said. “I don’t claim to be a dishing kind of guy, my style is more of getting it out, moving it and trying to make that first breakout pass.”
He ripped his first goal in a Penguins uniform in a 7-1 rout of the Flyers on March 16. It was a laser slapper from inside the blue line that scorched the back of the net.
“I don’t know where it went,” he said with a laugh. “It went in and it was nice to get a goal. But, it’s not really what I am out there for. I am out there to kind of shut down the other team.”
Since Gill is more a stay-at-home defenseman, it helps Letang’s confidence knowing he has the ability to jump into the rush without feeling like he’s left the team at a disadvantage in the defensive zone.
“It’s good for me because I always try to join the rush and create some offense. He’s a really good defenseman and he’s helped me a lot in my zone,” Letang said. “He talks to me a lot. It helps me. He’s a really good defenseman with his stick and with his range because he’s so tall.”
At 6-foot-7, Gill certainly is tall. He’s the second-tallest player to wear a Penguins uniform. Only 6-9 Steve McKenna was listed taller. Gill uses that size to his advantage by smothering opponents.
“I try to take away angles and force guys into spots they don’t want to go into,” Gill said. “Being as big as I am, it’s hard to attack guys and jump them too quick, but I try to steer them into a position they don’t want to be in and then use my stick and reach to poke the puck away.”
His size, reach and stick give him a huge wingspan that he uses to block passing lanes and clog up open ice.
“Exactly. That’s the idea – take away a player’s first option and make him look for another option,” he said. “By then, hopefully I can take away some more time and some more space and force them into his third option, whatever that is, and hopefully by that point take away anything.”
Now that he’s feeling more comfortable in the Penguins’ system, he hopes to become more aggressive physically.
“I’m trying to. It’s tough with the way the league is right now. If you’re not right on him and hit him right away, usually the guy is going to move the puck before he takes a hit and then you have about a half second before it’s an interference call,” he said. “There’s not too much leeway to go and get that big hit, but it’s something I am trying to do.”
Gill, a Concord, Mass., native, had some familiarity with some of the Penguins before he came to Pittsburgh, either from working out around Boston of from playing with them on Team USA’s entries into the World Championships throughout the years.
Gill represented Team USA at five World Championships (2000, ’01, ’04, ’05, ’06).
“I love that. It’s great; it’s a lot of fun. There’s not too much pressure for the American team. We kind of go over there and have fun and play hard. We got a bronze the one year, but for the most part we are competitive and I think there are a lot of young guys that kick start their careers in that tournament. They might not have a great year here, but they go over there and get some confidence and have fun,” he said. “It’s a different atmosphere. It’s not a do-or-die atmosphere until the last few games. There’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of going around and being with the guys. If you have a tough season, especially, it’s fun to go over there and you really enjoy every game. Hopefully, we don’t have to think about that this year and we can have our fun here.”
He certainly enjoys the atmosphere in Pittsburgh as well.
“The fans are great. I think it’s awesome playing in a building where you don’t have to start them up; you just play the game and they know when to go and when to get excited,” he said. “They are sharp; they are on top of it.”