When the Montreal Canadiens signed Hal Gill three years ago, everyone was wondering where the defenseman would fit into the line-up. He was big, he was slow, and he came into the organization at a time where it seemed as if the Habs had good depth on the back-end. Needless to say, the reaction wasn't entirely positive.
But over the course of the next two seasons, Gill would go on to prove everyone wrong. The road was often rocky, but the aging defenseman would often be a force to be reckoned with on the Canadiens' blue line, and definitely proved to be a valuable member of this team in more ways than one. While scoring goals and putting up points was obviously never Gill's strong suit, his 6'7" 240 lbs frame made him an asset defensively, especially on a team that has struggled to keep that sort of size anywhere on their line-up.
Gill started his career in Montreal at 34 in 2009-10, playing 68 games, putting up 150 blocked shots, and averaging 18:20 of ice time. He had his fans, but he also had his detractors, as his size often led him to giveaways and minor penalties. But the true value of Hal Gill would only be exposed in the playoffs, where Gill would contribute 68 blocked shots in 18 games, second to only Chris Pronger, and prove to be a major factor in the Canadiens' series victories over the much stronger Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
While everyone knew that Gill was an important part of the Pens' Stanley Cup victory the prior year, no one expected this type of breakout performance. Not only was Gill aging and on the tail end of basically playing two straight years of hockey with only a minimal break, but he also had the likes of Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang and Sergei Gonchar to insulate him down in Pittsburgh. In Montreal, Gill often found him self playing much higher on the depth chart than what he was likely used to, thanks to a superabundance of injuries that ravaged the team, especially on the blue line. But Gill didn't miss a single beat, and proved to be an excellent defense partner and mentor to Josh Gorges, who would use the opportunity to cement himself as a cornerstone of the team in his own performances against the Caps and Pens.
2010-11 would be more of the same, as his ice time would rise to 19:49, and he would contribute another 151 blocked shots to the team. Once again, much was asked of him, thanks in part to the sudden injuries to Andrei Markov and Gorges, but his role would begin to shift away from that of a top defenseman, and more towards the mentorship qualities he proved to have the prior year. Much of PK Subban's success in his rookie campaign was attributed to the leadership Gill brought to the dressing room, as the two would often be paired together on the ice.
His consistent performance in a dire situation would reward him, as Gill would earn a one-year contract extension over the summer. This time, the reaction would be much more positive than the one we witnessed only two years prior. Montreal Canadiens' fans accepted Gill's weaknesses, because his positive qualities greatly outweighed the negative ones. With Subban continuing his development, and the likes of Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz on the cusp of joining the team, it seemed as if Gill was in a perfect spot to finish his career in Montreal as the team's elder statesman, mentor, and defensive rock.
But then something happened. The team pretty much fell apart. Loss after loss, firings, trades, controversies, the Canadiens' struggles this season are obviously well-documented. As the season starts to wind down, and the trade deadline looms, these struggles raise a big question. What do you do with a defenseman like Hal Gill? As much of a mentor we can claim him to be, or a contributor to the defensive aspects of a team, we have to face facts. Gill is a 36-year-old, bulky, slow defenseman in the twilight of his career and a pending unrestricted free agent. As much as he's carved a niche out for himself in Montreal, things aren't going to get much better for him going forward, and the simple truth is that for the rest of this season, there really isn't any need for him on the team. Especially when you consider that players like Subban don't seem to be responding to him as a mentor anymore either.
Gill hasn't been particularly bad this season. His ice time has definitely taken a hit, however, as he's now averaging 17 minutes a game. And that's very telling, because just like last year, Gill should probably be a step higher on the depth chart due to the absence of Andrei Markov. Not to mention the growing pains of the likes of Subban, Diaz and Emelin. Outside of defensive situations like the penalty kill, Gill's play time is definitely being limited. Interestingly, he's still on pace to top his previous shot blocking totals with the Habs, with 110 blocked shots in 45 games, and while those 45 games haven't exactly been the best we've seen out of Gill, he hasn't been noticeably bad either.
That said, this is the role Gill should probably be in. A defensive / penalty kill specialist, low on the depth chart, low maintenance kind of guy who can help mentor young defensemen. But you have to wonder whether or not Gill's services would be better appreciated elsewhere. The Canadiens aren't making the playoffs this year, regardless of whatever kind of pipe dream people in Montreal would like to hold on to. People around this team have to ask themselves whether this kind of player in this kind of situation is someone they need to have around. Moreover, the February 27 trade deadline is quickly approaching, and the list of available defensemen is starting to shrink.
A few days ago, Tim Gleason, arguably the most attractive defenseman on the trading block, signed a 4-year contract extension with the Carolina Hurricanes, effectively taking him off the market. If you go down the list, there really isn't anyone ahead of Gill on the depth chart for Cup contending teams. Ryan Suter? Surely, but the price is likely too high. Pavel Kubina? Maybe. Former teammate Jaroslav Spacek? Please. Filip Kuba? Don't think Ottawa's trading him.
That puts the Canadiens in an interesting position. Gill's recent outings in the playoffs, not to mention his range of skills on and off the ice will make him very attractive to a teams like Philadelphia and Vancouver, teams that could be looking to add defensive depth heading into the post-season. You could argue that getting rid of the only veteran on the blue line could hurt the team's chemistry, but it would also give a younger player an opportunity to get more ice time, and a guy like Emelin is only now starting to show what he's truly capable of, outside of his bone-crunching hits.
What the team could get in return is anyone's guess. Last year, defenseman Bryan Allen, a seemingly younger version of Hal Gill, netted the Florida Panthers... Sergei Samsonov. Current Hab Chris Campoli got the Sens a prospect in Ryan Potulney (who left that summer as a UFA) and a 2nd round pick. Dennis Wideman went to Washington for a minor league prospect and a 3rd round pick. The year before, the bounty for a defenseman seemed to fall somewhere around a 4th round pick, and possibly a prospect. Hal Gill probably falls somewhere in the middle of all of this, but you have to wonder whether his playoff experience and leadership qualities, not to mention the dry market will help increase his value.
While the return might not help the Canadiens break the bank, Gill is probably this team's best bargaining chip. He may as well pack his bags right now, because it would be silly for Pierre Gauthier to keep him on the off chance he could get another good year or two out of him going forward after this mess of a season, and when he could quite clearly start a D-day bidding war and net his team a decent price to start the much-needed retooling of this team.
Unfortunately, there's something that stands between us and that possibility. The misguided idea that a 13th place team that's 9 points out of the playoffs and only 2 points away from last place in the conference stands any chance of making a playoff push. It's time to start packing things in, and to start looking to 2012-13, and it all starts with trading Hal Gill.
As much as Habs fans appreciate what Gill has brought to this team, and as much as he's obviously not the problem that led to the demise of the 2011-12 Habs, it just needs to happen. Maybe if it would simply be reassuring to see a sign that management will have finally given up on this horrid season.