Toronto brass have long expressed the desire to be a tough team to play against and the newly acquired Tim Gleason’s hard-nosed style embodies that notion.
By Gareth Bush
The scene feels all too familiar. The Leafs are defending a 4-3 lead at the TD Garden with less than a minute to go as the puck comes to the point, resting gently on Patrice Bergeron’s blade. The moment lasts a second at most, but feels like an eternity to a Leaf fan base that still hasn’t digested what materialized the last time around.
Bergeron lets a shot fly as the Leafs look on, overcome with deja vu.
But Tim Gleason doesn’t quite understand this feeling. After all, it’s only his fifth game as a Leaf. He doesn’t know how this scene is supposed to inevitably close.
Many traits describe what Gleason has brought to Toronto’s defense since being acquired from Carolina on New Year’s Day: toughness, grit, fortitude, even “truculence.” But Gleason chooses a word of his own.
“Stupidity,” he says.
And that’s exactly what Toronto is looking for against the Bruins, as Gleason blocks Bergeron’s shot with his face.
The Leafs hang on to win the Jan. 14 matchup, with Gleason taking home some hard-earned bruises in the process. He hopes it’s a sign of things to come.
“Like any hockey player, I want to be out there in the last minute, especially when we’re up a goal,” he says. “It’s an exciting time and why I play hockey. I’m not going to score 20 goals, but I’ll block a few shots for you.”
Now in his 10th season, Gleason, 30, is the second-oldest player on a young Maple Leafs roster. He didn’t know anyone on the team after he was acquired in a mid-season trade for John-Michael Liles, except for one.
“I told (Nikolai) Kulemin no hard feelings.”
Leaf fans might remember the night of Jan. 24, 2011 when Gleason was with the Hurricanes and got involved in a shoving match with Kulemin at the end of the first period. Gleason, a tough-as-nails stay at home defenseman, promptly broke Kulemin’s nose with a vicious upper cut.
It wasn’t the only time Gleason got the upper hand on the Leafs. In 2009, he notched the lone multi-goal game of his career against Toronto Nov. 19. It was a year when the first-round pick (Ottawa, 23rd overall in 2001) was establishing himself as one of the league’s grittiest combatants.
Gleason was knocked out of a game against Washington later that year after he took an Alex Ovechkin wrister to the face in the first period. One full-face shield and 30 stitches later, he returned and scored a tying shorthanded goal late in the third period to send the game to overtime.
His game isn’t pretty, but he knows that. It’s his ability to make life as difficult as possible for opposing forwards that earned him a spot on the 2010 American Olympic team that captured silver in Vancouver.
“He’s pure physicality,” says teammate Carl Gunnarsson. “He’s a strong guy down low. He won’t go out there and dangle two or three guys, but that’s not what we expect from him. He makes the simple plays.”
Past and present Toronto brass have become broken records expressing the desire to be a tough team to play against, but Gleason’s hard-nosed style is the perfect complement to that notion. His 43 career fights are another welcomed part of his resume.
But it’s not just his ability to excel doing the dirty work and the stabilization he brings to the team’s top two defensive pairings that makes him so valuable according to coach Randy Carlyle.
“He helps our young (defensemen) like (Jake) Gardiner and Morgan Rielly not get exposed to too much,” Carlyle says. “It adds comfort to those two to back off about who they have to play against.”
Carlyle didn’t need a sit-down conversation with Gleason to explain what he wanted from him upon his arrival, either.
“I said, ‘Just be Tim Gleason,’ ” Carlyle says. “The situation that he was in with Carolina just wasn’t working in the way that it had been in the past. We knew he could block shots, play a defensive role and be a good teammate. We feel we’re getting that from him now.”