Blue and White Beat: Gilbert should be remembered for putting his team first

Gilbert should be remembered for putting his team first

Greg Gilbert’s departure from the Toronto Marlies comes as disappointment to many, including yours truly, who had the pleasure of getting to know him during his three-year tenure as head coach of the Leafs’ AHL affiliate.

Maple Leafs president and GM Brian Burke, announced this past week that Gilbert’s contract will not be renewed; a move likely engineered not as an indictment of Gilbert’s performance behind the bench, but rather as a result of Burke’s preference to retain his own staff – a trait common to many NHL general managers.

Here’s hoping that Gilbert’s legacy as Marlies’ bench boss will be remembered for more than what appears to be an inextricable link between him and goaltender Justin Pogge. Gilbert’s decision to start veteran Scott Clemmensen over Pogge in the 2008 Calder Cup playoffs raised more than a few eyebrows among supporters of the so-called “Leafs goalie of the future”. For an encore, Gilbert pinned Pogge to the bench in the series-clinching loss to Manitoba in this year’s post-season. Pogge’s appearance in the lineup card as the backup goalie may represent his final insertion for a game as roster player within the Leafs’ organization.

To fairly judge Gilbert’s performance is to appreciate that his decisions were based on what he felt was best for the team as a whole, and not simply for the development of one player. Looking at a player like John Mitchell, who gained invaluable experience during their ’08 run to the AHL’s final four as one of the Marlies’ top scorers, it was refreshing to see him earn a job with the top club during Leafs’ training camp.

A closer examination of that exciting drive for the Calder Cup shows that Gilbert was able to get the most out of his foot soldiers when it mattered, particularly in the Eastern Conference Semi-Final against Syracuse, a series in which the Marlies trailed three games to one at one point. After top-line forward Bates Battaglia scored in overtime in Game Five, the series shifted back to Syracuse, where Peter (who?) Tsimikalis scored to spark a Marlies comeback. The Marlies advanced to the next round on the strength of two goals from fourth-liner Brent Aubin in Game #7. Those who watched the broadcast from Ricoh Coliseum will recall that special teams, particularly the penalty kill, were the key to victory for the Marlies. It was Gilbert who had converted Chris Harrington – one of the team’s best penalty killers along with Battaglia and Kris Newbury – from defence to forward in the regular season, and for those entire playoffs.

Justin who? This was about a team, not one guy. Gilbert deserves all the credit in the world for his resolve in the wake of a decision that was unpopular.

Never one to play favourites, Gilbert had no trouble suspending curfew-breaker Patrick O’Sullivan during his junior days with the Mississauga Ice Dogs, and clashed with Marc Savard when the player wouldn’t buy into the coach’s system with the Calgary Flames. One of the Marlies’ workhorse defencemen, Derrick Walser, found himself watching from the bench during the ’08 Calder Cup run after feeling the wrath of his coach.

Pogge may never develop into an NHL-caliber goalie; but if he does, a lot of fingers will be pointed squarely at Gilbert for perceived mismanagement of an asset.

An assessment of that nature would be unfair. If a guy can take your team to the final four and lose to the eventual champions (Chicago), he did more than a few things right.

Good luck, Gibby.

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Should the Red Wings successfully clinch their fifth title in 12 years, Chris Chelios will not be eligible to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup for a fourth time, unless he is inserted for either Game Six or Game Seven if necessary . While Detroit would be free to distribute rings to any player – including Chelios – at their discretion, NHL by-laws state that in order for a player’s name to appear on the Cup, a player must be a member of the winning team at the trade deadline and either 1) have played 40 games in the regular season, or 2) played one game in the Stanley Cup Final.

Chelios played only 28 regular season games with the Red Wings this year, and has not appeared in the playoffs since Game #4 of the semi-finals against Anaheim.

The winning team can petition the Commissioner to make an exception to the rule – in fact it happened successfully several years ago, involving an ex-Leaf. Do you remember who? See the answer at the end of this note.

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Hats off to Joe Nieuwendyk, who accepted the GM post in Dallas, where he won his second of 3 career Stanley Cups in 1999, taking Conn Smythe Trophy honours along the way. Coincidentally, the official announcement by the Stars of his acceptance of the job came on the same day that Jacques Martin was named coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

Nieuwendyk played for Martin for just over a season after he and close friend Gary Roberts left the Leafs to sign with the Florida Panthers after the lockout. In Salt Lake City in 2002, Nieuwendyk posed for photos holding his daughter Tyra as Team Canada ended its 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought with Martin behind the bench as one of Pat Quinn’s assistant coaches.

But this author will forever remember that it was Nieuwendyk who somewhat indirectly cost Martin his job as head coach of the Ottawa Senators. When, the Leafs and Senators dueled in Game #7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Final, Ottawa was aiming to end a streak of three straight playoff exits suffered at the hands of the Leafs in four years.

Unfortunately for Sens fans, goalie Patrick Lalime had a major obstacle that night at Air Canada Centre – PUCKS! Nieuwendyk scored a pair of identical soft goals in the first period, leading the way for a 4-1 Leafs victory in the most recent playoff series that Toronto has won to date. Rightly, or wrongly, Martin took the fall for his squad and was relieved of his duties shortly thereafter.

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Trivia answer: When the NY Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, they successfully petitioned for Ed Olczyk to get his name on the Cup, even though he had only played for 37 games in the regular season and did not play in the final. Olczyk played for three full seasons for the Leafs between 1986 and 1990, and is currently a broadcaster for the team that drafted him, the Chicago Blackhawks.


Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and will be blogging at TMLfans.ca throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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