Rare is the player that has joined the Montreal Canadiens with less fanfare than Josh Gorges. Arriving in town in the spring of 2007, Gorges was in the truest sense an unknown commodity.
The trading of Craig Rivet was an unpopular move when it was first announced on February 25th, 2007. An assistant captain and respected team leader, Rivet had won a long and hard fought battle for respect, from his teammates, from a demanding media and from the fans who had doubted him at the beginning of his decade long stay with the Canadiens.
And while many felt that Rivet, an impending unrestricted free agent, was not long for the Canadiens, it did nothing to lessen the disappointment of Habs supporters. For many, the trading of Rivet signified that Canadiens general manager, Bob Gainey, had given up on the season, a season that had once held such promise only mere months before when the Habs found themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference.
After all, sending Rivet to the San Jose Sharks, an established Stanley Cup favourite, left the impression that the Canadiens were as far away from contending for the Cup as the Sharks were close to it.
However, there was those few at the time, who felt that Gainey had made an astute and shrewd trade borne out of the fiscal realities of the current NHL. In moving Rivet, a player who seemed unlikely to resign with the team, Gainey was dealing from a position of strength. In trading one of his most valuable assets, a solid two-way defenseman, Gainey was able to pry a first-round pick out of the Sharks.
If chosen wisely, first-round picks can prove to be the backbone of team’s future triumphs. A look at recent Habs first-rounders, players like Mike Komisarek, Chris Higgins, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Carey Price, reveals the backbone of the current squad. By using that pick to select Max Pacioretty, it looks as if Gainey has once again maximized the potential inherent in selecting a first-round pick.
Beyond the first-round pick received for Rivet, very little attention was focused on Gorges, deemed by many a spare part, or at best the forgotten man of the trade. Gorges entered the Canadiens locker room that February day as an unknown commodity. Referred to as Josh Who by many in the media, Gorges saw limited action with the Canadiens the rest of the season, appearing in only seven games and failing to register a single point, as the Habs failed to qualify for the playoffs.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to see why Gorges was so overlooked. Despite his humble NHL beginnings (he wasn’t drafted and instead signed with the Sharks as a free agent in 2002), Gorges enjoyed an excellent junior career, captaining the Kelowna Rockets to the 2004 Memorial Cup Championship, as well as helping Canada to a silver medal at the 2004 World Junior Championships.
Perhaps the one thing overlooked the most was a 2003 feature on NHL.com that praised Gorges for his work ethic and for exceeding expectations at every level, traits that would become known to the Canadiens and their fans in time.
Even after the Canadiens broke training camp last fall, Gorges spot on the squad was tenuous at best, as his designated spot as the Habs seventh defenseman saw him dress in only one of the teams first nine games.
What wasn’t seen at the time was the effort Gorges was putting together each day in the Canadiens practices. There are few things more difficult for a professional athlete than working hard, giving your all in practice, and then finding yourself sitting up in the press box, feeling as if you’re not really a part of the team.
As can be expected of any player in this situation, frustration can mount and for many athletes their disgust soon pours out in public. To his credit, Josh Gorges accepted his role with a quiet dignity and chose to channel his frustration into a work ethic in practice that soon got him noticed by the Habs brass.
And while Josh was able to see an increase in playing time, finding the ice in eleven of the teams next twenty games, it was on December 13th in Philadelphia that the career of Josh Gorges took it’s most upward turn, as a shoulder injury to Patrice Brisebois gave Gorges his chance, and given the opening he took full opportunity.
After that game against the Flyers there would be no returns to the press box for Gorges, who would star in the Habs final 52 games, and see action in all twelve playoff contests. For a player who had struggled to find a permanent home in the NHL it was a major accomplishment, but it only told half the story.
The real story for those of us who watched Gorges was how good he played. Teamed with Francis Bouillon as the teams third defensive pairing, both men were able to give the Habs minutes from the backend that hadn’t been seen in years. But it was Gorges, seemingly improving every game, who established himself as one of the Canadiens most trusted players. As the season progressed he increasingly found himself being given new responsibilities, culminating near the end of the season with Mike Komisarek’s injury.
Without the presence of Komisarek, one of the Habs top defenseman, many experts predicted that Montreal would slump in the season’s closing weeks. Surprisingly, the Habs thrived and a large part of that credit must be given to Josh Gorges, who took on some of the missing minutes and responsibilities in Komisarek’s absence and gave us a glimpse of the potential he possesses.
Ironically, this summer a player who was a mere footnote the year before was seen as a crucial resigning this summer for Canadiens general manager, Bob Gainey. Reading the various fan blogs, which usually thrive on disagreement, saw many united in their desire to see the Habs get Gorges’ name on a contract.
Clearly Gainey, saw the same thing that everybody else did, when he announced the signing of Gorges to a three-year contract.
“Josh established himself as a key member of our defensive squad last season,” Gainey proclaimed in a press release, echoing the sentiments of Habs fans everywhere. “His reliability and solid play made him one of our most improved players.”
In a year that saw the Canadiens exceed expectations, no player’s performance mirrored the teams as much as Josh Gorges. It was a year that saw Gorges establish himself at the highest level, a year in which he became one of the Habs most reliable performers, a year which many think is only the prelude to a bright future, for both Gorges and the Canadiens.