When Brian Gionta was named captain of the Montreal Canadiens I was incredibly pleased, and very happy for him. He sports a Stanley Cup ring, has a do-not-quit attitude and had long been my choice to offer some experience and leadership in a tight locker room.
This season, however, something seems off with Gionta and I’m not quite sure what it is.
Is he just missing Scott Gomez? Tomas Plekanec is the team’s top center, having wrested that berth away from Gomez during the latter’s struggles last season. Plekanec is solid and talented at both ends of the ice, and was used repeatedly by coach Jacques Martin last season to reignite struggling wingers.
But I honestly don’t see any chemistry between him and Gionta. Even more telling, Gionta is no longer smiling and positive like he used to appear.
Perhaps the line itself is too small. Mike Cammalleri, who does have great chemistry with Plekanec, is on the left wing and that makes Plekanec the big guy on the line who has to dig and battle for pucks. Not helping the line is the fact that of the three, only Gionta is truly healthy.
Plekanec is reportedly nursing a rib injury and Cammalleri seems to be missing his stride after sustaining a fluke cut on the leg back in October. With no big guy on the line—like a Max Pacioretty to dig for the pucks—the trio has been struggling to contribute offensively.
That said, Gionta’s effort level is still front and center. He still fights for the puck, but he loses far too many battles lately. He parks in front of the net, but has no big bodies to assist him once he’s there either.
He’s well into the negative side of the +/- on his last three games, going minus-nine in that time span, but that stat itself has always been deceiving. Defensively he still is one of the more responsible forwards on the ice.
As far as leadership goes, the team is once again mired in the vicious cycle of only playing for 20 or 30 minutes a game.
While some of that is clearly Martin’s responsibility, part of the captain’s contribution has to be kicking some complacent butts around the locker room and refocusing and re-energizing his teammates during the intermissions. Too often this team sits back when they have a lead, or quits trying while the game is still within their reach.
Perhaps I was wrong about Gionta’s ability to guide his teammates and mentor the young bloods. How can he help lead them when he can’t fix whatever is wrong with his own game?
Gionta is not the only leader in that room. Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, Plekanec and Cammalleri are all veterans who form the engine that drives this team.
But at the end of the day it’s Brian Gionta wearing the C, and right now the Habs need him to figure it out fast if they are going to stop what is looking more and more like a long, slow slide down the Eastern conference ladder and out of contention.
Last season, Gionta lead the team in goals despite getting off to a rough start. His outstanding work ethic and positive outlook no doubt played a huge role in turning his game around. Thus far this season he has contributed only seven goals and assisted on another six.
Thankfully the line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole has been contributing steadily on the scoresheet. But there's no doubt that the Habs need both of their top two lines scoring consistently if they are going to pull themselves back into a playoff berth.
With Pacioretty currently on the shelf serving a three-game suspension, perhaps some line shuffling will help kick Gionta into his old self.