The Pittsburgh Penguins edged the Blue Jackets in Round 1 of the 2013-14 playoffs, but Columbus may have picked a gem from the Pens' pocket.
While most of the attention this off-season has been focused on the Blue Jackets' acquisition of Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers, the ongoing saga of Ryan Johansen and the anticipation that players such as Kerby Rychel and Alexander Wennberg could break through to the parent club this year, a relatively unheralded free agent acquisition may ultimately steal the spotlight.
It was Independence Day in the U.S. when the Blue Jackets announced that they had inked a one-year, two-way contract with the Penguin's speedy forward, Brian Gibbons. 2013-14 was Gibbons' first taste of NHL ice, coming at age 26. That's a bit on the older side, but easily explained by the fact that he spent four full years at Boston College -- Cam Atkinson's alma mater, recently spurned by the Jackets' #1 draft pick Sonny Milano -- followed by two years with Wilkes - Barre/Scranton in the AHL. In fact, Gibbons shared the B.C. ice with Atkinson for three years, notching 43-86-129, while Atkinson posted 68-56-124 over the same stretch. Here's Gibbons' full tale of the tape:
Born: Braintree, Mass. USA
Evaluating Gibbons solely by the numbers would be a mistake, however -- at least at this point in his young career. Sure, at first glance his 5-12-17 numbers in his premier NHL season might provoke a yawn. But look closer and you'll see that he averaged only 11:00 minutes of TOI per game. Oh, and he played for a club that had guys like Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz, et al. On the one hand, it's great for a guy breaking into the league to play around that kind of talent. On the other hand, if you're an upwardly mobile forward, there's really no room at the inn.
So, why all the fuss? Let's go back to April 19, 2014. Game 2 of the Columbus -- Pittsburgh playoff series. Gibbons opened the scoring with a deft deflection of a Niskanen point shot. Then this happened. Watch . . .and listen, young grasshopper:
That short-handed goal put the Penguins up 2 -0 , and Gibbons left the ice shortly thereafter with an injury. Of course, the Blue Jackets came back to win that one 4 - 3, but Gibbons had made his mark. Sure, you can't get too excited about one game -- even if it did involve his NHL playoff debut and beating one of the better goalies in the game -- but the skills that were displayed cause the eyebrows to raise just a bit. Did you hear Pierre McGuire? " . . . the fastest guy on the Penguins from a standing start?" ". . .the creativity, the awareness and the smarts . . .?" It paints a picture of a highly talented guy looking to make a mark, but stuck in a situation where talented forwards are a dime a dozen. From such situations do great opportunities arise, and this could be one of them.
Gibbons has done nothing to hurt his case through his public statements:
I think I can bring some things to the table that they [Blue Jackets] were looking for, and I was really excited to sign with Columbus. . . . Before I signed, we talked about them having a couple open spots in their lineup. There are a bunch of guys in the mix for those spots . . .and I'm one of them. I'm going to compete my hardest and do whatever I can to win one of those spots. . . . What I learned about the Blue Jackets is the character; it was really apparent. . . .They were such a determined team, they never quit, and that told me they have a really strong leadership group in that room.NHL.com
Sure, the elephant in the corner is Gibbons' size -- 5'8" and 170 lbs. -- the functional equivalent of Atkinson, who is listed at (cough) 5'8" and (cough) 174 lbs. From where I sit, it's not really an issue, particularly if he can earn enough ice time to develop those skills and use that speed. For those who have been paying attention, the Todd Richards' mantra has shifted this off-season to a theme of "speed and skill". To be sure, he's not about to abandon the toughness and physical play he loves -- see Hartnell, Scott -- but it seems that the playoffs opened some eyes and some minds among the Blue Jackets' brain trust.
Gibbons potentially brings not only his speed and skill, but the more intangible elements of internal pressure and competition. His old teammate Atkinson hit some rough patches last season, and Gibbons is known has a hard working, two way player. He can put some pressure on his buddy to up his game to 200 feet, and the familiarity between the two just might be the chemistry spark that takes the offense to the next level. At $750,000 for a one-year, two-way deal, there is virtually zero risk.
Sometimes a savvy front office can find those players who have the skill, but are underutilized or miscast with their current clubs. This could be one of those opportunities. Speed, creativity, skill, awareness and smarts? A hard worker and a 200 foot player? What's not to like? Welcome to Columbus, Brian!!!
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