It’s almost the stuff feel-good sports movies are made of. A sagging team is short on confidence and moping around the locker room, then some kind of spark plug comes to the team because of a minor trade, the team succeeds, has a huge victory and in a touching final scene, learn that they had the power to win inside themselves all along. Play a little Don’t Stop Believin’, everyone learns a valuable lesson and bang — America has hope again.
Life may just be imitating art for the Carolina Hurricanes, as offseason acquisition Nathan Gerbe has jump-started a lackluster team that may have just begun to stop believing.
Gerbe was signed as a free agent from the Buffalo Sabres in an entirely forgettable transaction. Buffalo made no efforts to keep the 5-foot-5 center as the team was looking to build a more physical squad. The Gerbe signing was secured with little fanfare — nowhere near the hype surrounding the signings of Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal.
The problem Carolina has faced for a number of seasons is a refusal to adapt to the new wave of offensive philosophy in the NHL. The influx of European talent, particularly from the Russian leagues, has caused a shift towards faster, run-and-gun, shoot-first types of offense. With the rise of Pavel Datsyuk, the name of the game has become highlight-reel offense. Heavy on the one-timer, top-shelf snap shots and the deke, the rest of the league has had to adapt or die.
Carolina chose the latter. Semin coming to the team brought a flicker of hope, yet the numbers never really followed. While Semin did bring the flash, it seemed as though it was not enough. Gerbe is among the crop of hybrid North American players who adopt the flash of European hockey and incorporate the North American grit and physicality. This has made him the perfect bridge between the new look and the rest of the team, which is primarily North American.
This shows when you see that Gerbe is currently third on the team in shots on goal behind Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. Factor in the fact that he is only seeing an average of 18:08 ice time per game and 24.2 shifts, and it’s apparent how much Gerbe is maximizing his time on the ice.
Just as important as any number is one intangible factor. There’s no official term for it, and “scrappiness” is the closest anyone can come to describing it. Gerbe falls into a similar paradox seen in the career of Calgary Flames legend Theo Fleury, where his smaller stature forced him to assert himself more physically.
Gerbe is far from the agitator Fleury was, but he is the smallest player in the league (and coincidentally wears the same jersey number as Fleury) and is able to stand his ground in the physical game. When the 5-foot-5 guy is laying the body on the tough guys, the rest of the team has no excuse.
All this influence is beginning to show. The Hurricanes have skyrocketed to no. five in the league for shots on goal with a mind numbing 286, and are averaging 31.8 shots per game. A 76 percent shooting average isn’t perfect, but any coach will tell you that the more shots you put on goal, the higher your chance of scoring.
While Gerbe is not the sole saving grace of the Hurricanes, he is absolutely just what the doctor ordered for a squad getting far to used to playing golf in May. There is no greater compliment a player can receive than “He makes the players around him better.” Reliable on the ice, great off-ice and locker room chemistry, and amazing rink vision — it makes you wonder why Buffalo let him go.