VOORHEES, N.J. – For Hal Gill, the path back to playing even one game that matters this season has certainly been a winding one.
The 38-year-old defenseman, who has made a career based totally on size, smarts and guile rather than speed, energy or skill (although his nickname is “Skillsey,” which is awesome), needed someone to take a chance on him in a role he’s never played in order not to become one of those classic veteran salary cap casualties that have seen too many good careers end too soon because of monetary restrictions.
So, when Gill was offered a tryout contract by the Flyers, it was the best offer he could get, he took it.
And when the Flyers said they were willing to sign him to a one-year deal worth just 700,000 peanuts and, oh yeah, he’d be an eighth defenseman who likely would only play in an emergency and was needed just for his veteran presence, Gill still said, “Sure.”
It was his only way to stay in the game. To be a part of a team. To be able to contribute, even if it was such a small way.
So he’d become a mentor and a locker room leader, but also a spare part.
When you are trying to hang on to a career, sometimes, that’s O.K.
And through the first month of the season, Gill played his role perfectly. He earned high praise from coach Craig Berube who called him “the ultimate professional.”
He skated hard in every practice, and no matter what other scratches he was skating with – whether it was Erik Gustafsson or Andrej Meszaros or Jay Rosehill or Adam Hall or Kris Newbury, Gill was with them stride for stride – Showing each of them how to tackle the job when you aren’t playing.
Then suddenly, one of those emergency situations where Gill would be needed cropped up Saturday.
No, there wasn’t a rash of injuries on the blue line, necessitating his in-game services. No, instead the emergency was a 3-9-0 start, and poor play by the entire team in an embarrassing 7-0 home loss to an Alex Ovechkin-less Washington team on Friday.
Berube had seen enough. He was making a change to send a message not just to those players scratched, (even though Erik Gustafsson and Luke Schenn needed the message after suddenly becoming turnover prone) but to shake up an already shaken locker room.
So, after a gutty 1-0 win Saturday against New Jersey, one in which Gill played well in the nearly 15 minutes of ice time he had, it may have been purely coincidental that the Flyers suddenly played their first giveaway-free game in four years, or it could be that Gill offered a bit of a veteran calming influence to a blue line under duress.
“I thought he played really well,” Berube said. “Both he and Meszaros went in there – they were partners – and played a really strong game. They were physical, they killed the [New Jersey] cycle. They’re both big guys who’ve been around and did a good job.”
And right now, it’s those little things in a game that are hard to measure statistically, that the Flyers need to do well to get out of their rut, which is now at 4-9-0 after 13 games.
But, to go from one game where five-foot passes were challenging to the defenseman on breakouts to another where not only was puck possession flawless in their own end, but where they limited the Devils to just 14 shots on goal in just 24 hours was wildly unexpected.
It wasn’t all Hal Gill, of course, that made that difference, but he was certainly a part of it.
“I try to be as steady as I can,” Gill said. “Just be composed under pressure. It’s tough because it’s a tight game. That’s the greasy road win that we wanted. We wanted to wear them down and battle… We had a pretty good gameplan going in. We knew what we wanted to do. We also had some good goaltending and that always helps, but we had guys willing to make plays, block shots and get in lanes to discourage them from shooting.”
Gill was certainly one of them.
He may not have been credited on the final game sheet with a blocked shot, but as a defenseman with a reputation as being one of the best shot blockers in the history of the sport, plus his 6-foot-6 frame clogging up shooting lanes, he was definitely a deterrent for the Devils shooting the puck on goal.
Moving forward, Gill’s role is probably in a state of positive flux.
In other words, he can stay in the lineup, and continue to help in limited time, mostly with his cool, veteran presence, or he can be returned to his role as an extra guy, being that great pro that Berube always says he is, and showing everyone what hard work and dedication brings as a reward.
Either way, there’s no question that he benefits the Flyers whether he is on or off the ice.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Berube said of Gill’s role going forward. “He did a good job. We determine those things at a later time. It’s an in-house thing, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Considering what Gill’s alternatives were a couple months ago, “We’ll see” is good enough for him.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers
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