Luke DeCock

DeCock: Canes’ introspective Gleason rediscovers his edge

Mats Zuccarello (36) of the New York Rangers shoots against Anton Khudobin (31) of the Carolina Hurricanes as Tim Gleason (6) defends.
Mats Zuccarello (36) of the New York Rangers shoots against Anton Khudobin (31) of the Carolina Hurricanes as Tim Gleason (6) defends. Getty Images

In the span of a few months, Tim Gleason was traded by the team for which he had played 491 games and then paid $5.7 million to go away by another. That kind of turmoil can be an eye-opening experience. In Gleason’s case, it opened his eyes to what had gone missing from his game.

The Carolina Hurricanes defenseman thought he had been playing with a physical edge. He really did. He believed he still was delivering hits and intimidation just as he had earlier in his career, when he was regarded highly enough to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

But after watching his career grind to a halt at age 31, during a summer of restlessness after the Toronto Maple Leafs bought out his contract before he returned to the Hurricanes on a far more modest deal, Gleason realized that physical edge had left his game.

“The last year and a half, looking back at it, I wasn’t doing those things,” Gleason said. “Maybe physical at times, but not playing with that extra bite at the end, I guess. Not fighting – just being aggressive, being in your face, being hard to play against. You look back at it, and I realized I wasn’t doing that on a consistent basis. Coming into the season, I have to do what I used to do, because obviously it worked for a long time.”

Anyone who has watched the Hurricanes’ first four games of the season doesn’t need to be informed that physical edge is back in Gleason’s game. He irritated the New York Islanders in the opening home-and-home before throwing his weight – 217 pounds on a stocky 6-foot frame – around in the shootout losses to the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.

This is very good news for the Hurricanes, a franchise which even in its best seasons has not been among the most physical in the league. (Even the 2006 Stanley Cup champions wore down the opposition with relentless possession.)

It isn’t about fighting, which is rapidly moving toward inevitable obsolescence. And it isn’t necessarily about size, although Gleason has that. It’s a simpler dynamic: the ability to deliver a hit, to separate body from puck, to grind and wear down the opposition.

The occasional players like Gleason, Scott Walker, Bryan Allen or Craig Adams have had tooth-rattling potential on a nightly basis, but the Hurricanes typically have fielded rosters thin on physical players. That made Gleason, for many years, No. 1 on the list, but for whatever reason – losing a half-step that allowed him to close the gap on opponents and deliver a timely hit, the confidence to move into attack mode without hesitation – that part of his game slipped.

“It’s hard,” Gleason said. “Someone comes up to you and says, ‘You need to be more physical,’ and I think I am. This is an opportunity for me to regroup, get my game back and play with that physical edge, that grittiness, and contribute in that regard on a nightly basis.”

Thanks to a summer of workouts in the gym and introspection at home that brought him renewed quickness and confidence, not to mention sense of purpose, it’s back now, and just in time for the Hurricanes as they head out on a four-game swing through Western Canada starting Tuesday night at the Winnipeg Jets.

The current group is not particularly physically intimidating while also extremely young. That’s a dangerous combination in the NHL, particularly on the road, which puts even more pressure on Gleason to set the tone.

“He drags guys into battle,” coach Bill Peters said, “and we need that.”

Gleason is more than happy to continue to play that way. He’s even happier to be back to the player he needs to be.