The Nashville Predators added a key piece for their expected playoff run in a trade with Montreal on Friday and, in the process, sent a player to the Canadiens who has a legendary family history with the NHL's most storied franchise.
The Predators picked up 36-year-old, 6-foot-7 defenseman Hal Gill, who won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009 and helped eighth-seeded Montreal advance to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. After 6-4 defenseman Shea Weber, Nashville's relative lack of size on defense was considered something that general manager David Poile wanted to upgrade, as well as quality depth. Twice on a recent road trip, defenseman Ryan Suter played more than 30 minutes which is about three more than the league's leader averages per game.
Poile said he also wanted to upgrade Nashville's penalty killing. The Canadiens own the NHL's top unit, which has killed 88.9 percent of power plays this season, and Gill leads the team in average shorthanded time on ice at 4:00 per game. Nashville ranks 16th in the league at 81.7 percent.
Overall, Gill averages 16:44 per game, which is not a ton, but at his age and size, skating is not his strength, yet he remains an effective player. His 122 blocked shots rank 14th in the NHL.
"I think Hal Gill's career, everybody knows, he's a big guy," Poile said in a conference call. "I mean, to describe his skating and his speed, is he the fastest guy in the league? No. I'm not trying to pick on him or anybody else, but for him to take one or two strides versus maybe a smaller player on our team has to take four or five strides.
"Does he get there, does he do the job, do we think he's a good penalty killer, do we think he can shut down other players? The answer is yes and that's why we made the trade."
Poile said last season just as he acquired center Mike Fisher to add playoff experience prior to the trade deadline, which is Feb. 27 this year, he did so for the same reason with Gill. Gill has played in 69 playoff games over the last four seasons, which Poile estimated as among the most in the NHL over that period. The Concord, Mass., native has played in 1,047 career games and 105 career postseason games with Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh and the Canadiens.
Poile said he also might like to add a veteran forward before the deadline expires. Gill was expected to suit up on Friday, as the Predators, tied for fifth overall in the NHL standings, visit league-leading Detroit, which set a record on Tuesday with 21 consecutive home wins.
In the deal, Nashville also acquired a conditional fifth-round pick in 2012 they will get it if Geoffrion plays at least 40 games in Montreal next season; he is reporting to their AHL affiliate in Hamilton. The Predators gave up a second-round pick in 2013, minor league forward Robert Slaney and Nashville area native Blake Geoffrion whose grandfather and great-grandfather are both in the Hall of Fame.
"It was tremendously exciting when we drafted Blake," Poile said, "and, obviously, when he played for us in Nashville. It just didn't work out this year for Blake, but I think Montreal's got a real good player here The fact that his name is Geoffrion should work wonders in Montreal. I think in terms of trading Blake, this was the place to trade him. I think it was a little bit of a unique situation with the history. I believe it's good for Montreal to get Blake."
Geoffrion's grandfather, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, had his number retired by the Canadiens and won the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in points in 1955 and again in 1961, the same year he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He is considered the inventor of the slap shot. Blake Geoffrion's great-grandfather is Howie Morenz, who won the Art Ross in 1928 and 1931 and the Hart in '28, '31 and '32.
Geoffrion's father Danny, who settled in Middle Tennessee, where Blake was raised, had a brief NHL career, playing 32 games for the Canadiens in 1979-80, making Blake a fourth-generation Canadien potentially a first in the history of North American professional sports.
Canadiens fans follow their team with an intensity that is perhaps unrivaled in North America and that full glare will soon focus on Blake, a promising two-way player who struggled in the production department this season, but was effective last season and in the playoffs for Nashville.
Geoffrion responded to the trade via Twitter.
"Wow..what a day...its bitter sweet, going to miss my hometown of nashville, but going to where it all started with my family...MONTREAL!!!"
He also added: "Want to thank all of the fans of nashville for all the support over the last two years.....going to miss you guys...."
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he was a second-round pick in 2006 by Nashville, 56th overall, and won the Hobey Baker Award at Wisconsin as the NCAA's top player. In 22 games this season, he had no goals and three assists and a minus-2 rating. The center was sent to the minors just before the start of the New Year. He had six goals and two assists and a plus-3 rating in 20 games last season in Nashville and no goals, two assists and a plus-1 rating in 12 playoff games.
Poile said Geoffrion was one of a number of players who were not playing well at the time he was sent down.
"That's the real hard question to answer," Poile said, as to why Geoffrion wasn't playing well. "He was struggling. So was our hockey club and we didn't really get out of the gate really strong this year. There were a lot of guys who, I would say, were under-performing from their pace from last year. We started the year and still are the youngest team in the NHL
"Blake was just not quite as effective in terms of getting points or plusminus or any of those things. He was just off. To me, it was probably more of a team situation."
At the start of his career, Poile served as assistant general manager of the Atlanta Flames. The team was coached by "Boom Boom" Geoffrion. Poile also has gotten to know Danny Geoffrion in recent years. Trading a popular local player was not easy, Poile said, saying he was "very torn." Geoffrion's contract is set to expire at season's end.
"Like I said, if it wasn't Montreal, a unique situation, with his family, the history, all that stuff, I probably wouldn't have traded him and would've worked hard to get Blake back here. So it's an extremely tough decision to do that because of the obvious ties to Nashville. I mean, it was fabulous to have a local player here.
"That's a tough part of the business."