The Canadiens' nowhere man
NHL shot-block leader Josh Gorges will likely set a Montreal franchise record
Despite Montreal's lowly standing, Gorges takes his lumps for his teammates
He eschews extra shields and can spot players who fake trying for a block
The egregious Montreal Canadiens lead the NHL in more than players traded between periods (one, Mike Cammalleri), interim head coaches who have been kneecapped for linguistic shortcomings by their owner and general manager (one, Randy Cunneyworth) and assistant coaches who have never coached before (one, Larry Carriere).
Montreal also has the defenseman who leads the league in blocked shots: Josh Gorges.
Now, like players traded between periods and emasculated interim coaches, shot blocks are sort of a shadowy area. If you navigate the NHL website, you eventually find them under the Real Time Stats. The numbers, as of Wednesday, March 21, reveal that Gorges has 215 in 73 games, 38 more than the league's No. 2 pi˝ata, Anaheim defenseman Franšois Beauchemin. The current differential should make the shot-blocking race a runaway for Gorges, or, depending on where the hurtling vulcanized rubber strikes him, a limpaway.
Gorges has no idea if his agent used such numbers in negotiating his six-year, $23.4 million contract extension this winter, but the blueliner does consider the statistic a telltale sign if not a dealmaker. "Basically (shot blocks) asks the question: Will he or won't he?" Gorges says. "They speak to something in a guy's character."
Gorges will not threaten the single-season record (273) set by Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov in 2006-07 -- the stat has had NHL status only since the lockout -- but he seems destined to shatter Montreal's franchise mark of 227 held by current Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek, who, judging by the goings-on in Boston last Monday, is taking most of the shots to his face.
For those who missed it -- Gorges didn't, watching the clip on Tuesday morning -- Komisarek fought the Bruins' Milan Lucic in the first period after Boston had taken a 4-0 lead. The lopsided bout had vague overtones of a Lucic-Komisarek third-period fight in 2008, another one-sided game, in which Lucic whipped Komisarek and wound up dumping the defenseman on his shoulder. The incident, to paint it with a broad brush, essentially derailed Komisarek's career.
Komisarek later told SI.com that he had fought to take the pressure off Georges Laraque, the curiously reluctant heavyweight who liked to do everything by "the code." SI.com, in a particularly avuncular mood that day, replied that it was Laraque's job to take pressure off Komisarek, not the other way around. In any case 6'-4", 225-pound Komisarek, who spent two years at the University of Michigan and thus should have known better, was pummeled once again by the Bruins' power winger.
"I'm watching it," Gorges said, "and all I'm thinking is, 'Get a hold of (Lucic's) free arm.'"
Maybe Komisarek should be commended for taking his lumps, but the Toronto defenseman still has to sort out this business of time and place. For Komisarek, who has fought his Bruins antagonist three times, counting the regular-season and playoffs, within the same zip code as a Lucic punch is never the place.
Komisarek's folly, of course, raises the question of whether there is a time and a place for blocking a shot. The Canadiens are sucking exhaust fumes in the Eastern Conference with fewer than three weeks left in the season, which hardly seems the time for anybody to be putting himself in harm's way. Gorges summarily dismisses that sort of thinking.
"(Our position in the standings) doesn't change the way I do my job," says Gorges, an alternate captain. "Part of my job is blocking shots. If I start letting up, I'm not doing right by my teammates or my goalies. That's not the way a professional goes about his business."
The only time Gorges will not try to forge his way into a shooting lane is if he knows no opponent is in front of the net and his goalie has an unimpeded look at the shot.
Gorges is something of a shot-blocking autodidact. When he played junior hockey, Jeff Truitt, then an assistant coach with the Kelowna Rockets, would occasionally take out old tennis balls and soft orange rubber pucks and have his blueliners polish their rudimentary skills, like kids learning to ride a bike with training wheels. And Gorges often discussed the art of the shot-block with one of his former defense partners in Montreal, Hal Gill, the 6'-7" human eclipse who is now in Nashville. Like Peter Sellers' Chance The Gardener, Gill has made his way in life simply by being there. While Gill would often wax eloquently about timing and positioning, much of Gorges' knowledge has come through trial and, in the case of a Mike Green slapshot in February 2010, error.
Gorges laid out like Canadiens of earlier vintage -- think of forwards like Bob Gainey or Guy Carbonneau or a defensemen like Craig Ludwig -- and took a shot by the Washington blueliner squarely in the back of his helmet. (Gorges had reflexively swiveled his head to avoid taking the puck in the kisser.)
The notion of blocking a shot horizontally, however swell the picture might look in the archives, lost all appeal. Gorges, listed at 6'-1" and 205 pounds, now does his shot-blocking vertically.
"We used to talk about that a lot when I was in San Jose," says Gorges, who started his career with the Sharks but moved to Montreal in a 2007 trade deadline deal. "If you leave your feet ... so many guys are so good with the puck that they'll just go around you. You leave yourself vulnerable, so you should stay up. That was an organizational philosophy."
Gorges also blocks shots al fresco, or at least as unencumbered as any well-padded defenseman can be. Gill wears extra gewgaws on his shin pads for protection, but Gorges roundly rejects those. He also has discarded the plastic shields that go over the laces of the skates, equipment that became all the rage in the NHL after a spate of broken feet a few winters ago. All it took was one wardrobe malfunction for Gorges to ditch the shields. He got caught with a broken strap dangling in the 2010 Eastern final against Philadelphia -- Gorges actually stepped on it and stumbled -- and Claude Giroux dangled past him to score the opening goal in Game 4.
The primary reason Gorges is a shot-blocking success is a simple willingness to get in the way. This is not courage, exactly. This is more an understanding of what a player owes to himself, his team and the game. And honestly, shot-blocking, assuming to you take one in the shins, doesn't hurt all that much -- even if Volchenkov's torso during his Ottawa days used to resemble a painted desert sunset with all those purples and pinks and yellows. Man up. Step up.
Gorges and Gill used to chortle on the bench at players who feigned getting in shooting lanes and watched as shots screamed towards the goal. From the aerie and angle of the press box, it is almost impossible to tell an accomplished faker, who is like a veteran stunt man who knows how to simulate taking a punch. From the bench, however, actors are all too obvious. As Gorges says, "It's one thing having a guy firing a puck just by your shin pads. It's another thing not getting in the way so the puck goes just by your shin pads."
So locate Real Time Stats and scan the list of shot-blockers. At the top there is a defenseman on a team going nowhere who is determined to make sure the puck is doing the same -- going nowhere.