RALEIGH The Carolina Hurricanes’ best forward this season is also their shortest player, their cheapest player, their feistiest player, their most grief-stricken player and perhaps their most motivated player.
Nathan Gerbe hasn’t scored in six games, but he does so much else the coach still calls him the team’s “most consistent forward,” and he set up the two opening goals in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche. He gets to the net, he gets under opponents’ skin, he gets scoring chances and Tuesday he got a pair of assists on goals by linemates Jordan Staal and Patrick Dwyer.
“I always expect a lot of myself,” Gerbe said. “I’m my toughest critic. There’s no reason I can’t make an impact, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it every night, being consistent.”
In terms of unexpected impact at the forward position for the Hurricanes this year, it’s hard to beat Gerbe, Radek Dvorak and Manny Malhotra – a guy the worst team in the NHL paid to go away, a guy old enough to have played alongside Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller and a guy with an eye injury so serious his former team was afraid to put him on the ice.
The signing of Gerbe as a bargain-basement free agent at a mere $550,000 currently ranks as the Hurricanes’ biggest offseason success, although the renovated blue line has played up to expectations as well. Certainly he has had no shortage of motivation.
When you’re 5-foot-5 with five older siblings and you grew up in Michigan and weren’t recruited by Michigan or Michigan State – Gerbe did OK at Boston College, winning a national title in 2008 – there’s always something, but Gerbe has had more than his share lately
First, the Buffalo Sabres bought out the final year of his three-year, $4.35million contract over the summer, cutting him loose after only 10 points in 42 games. He also had to prove he was fully recovered from surgery on a herniated disc in the summer of 2012. And then, on the eve of training camp, his brother-in-law was killed in a car accident in Michigan, leaving behind Gerbe’s sister and three young children.
Gerbe missed the first few days of training camp to be with her and her family, then scored three goals in the Hurricanes’ first four games. They just spent a week with him here and he’ll spend the Olympic break with them in Michigan.
His new teammates remembered him from the Sabres because Gerbe always seems to make an impression, either with a goal or a glove in the face. Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said he always saw Gerbe as “fearless” in front of the net, but what really distinguished Gerbe as an opponent was his elusiveness.
“He really uses his size differential to his advantage,” Harrison said. “It allows him to get under checks and it allows him to get through checks that maybe a bigger guy can’t. I think that’s a big key to his success, turning what a lot of people would consider a knock into a real advantage.”
Over the summer, Gerbe was exactly the kind of player Muller wanted to add in his quest to make the Hurricanes tougher to play against. Gerbe has delivered, although Muller would like to see his style become a little more contagious. The last few games, it has been.
“You’d like to think so,” Muller said. “A guy that size, he’s in there playing feisty and aggressive.”
Gerbe set the tone again Tuesday. His teammates followed suit, for their third win in four games.