Defenseman Bruno Gervais Worth the Investment for Philadelphia Flyers
Photo Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)
Hours after the front office received word that neither Zach Parise nor Ryan Suter would be joining the Philadelphia Flyers, Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the team was close to signing Bruno Gervais, a 27-year old defenseman formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders.
When the two-year, $1.65 million contract was officially announced early Thursday afternoon, the reaction from the vast majority of the Philadelphia Flyers’ fanbase was that of confusion.
Even with the loss of Matt Carle to free agency, Philadelphia’s front five defensemen remain very solid. Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros, Nicklas Grossmann and the newly acquired Luke Schenn will take the lion’s share of the even strength minutes on the Flyers’ blue line.
This leaves only one starting slot available for Gervais. Yet he will be forced to compete against veterans Andreas Lilja and Matt Walker, not to mention younger talents Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon and Brandon Manning to earn that spot.
With an already deep corps of defensemen, and at least five preexisting competitors for the role as the Flyers’ sixth defenseman on opening night, why invest a contract in yet another fringe defender?
The answer is simple. The Flyers, rightfully, see a player with upside beyond that of a mere fringe defenseman.
Gervais spent three seasons as a top-four defenseman for the New York Islanders, from 2007 through 2009. And while Gervais’ statistics were not stellar during those seasons, he held his own. He ranked 5th, 3rd, and 4th respectively in Quality of Competition amongst Islanders defensemen during those three seasons, proving that the Islanders did trust him to face second and third line opposition.
His possession statistics were respectable, as well. His lowest Corsi Relative (a measure of shots on goal plus minus relative to his teammates) was a -1.9 in 2007-08, and his best was a very solid 5.0 in 2009-10. Gervais appeared to be on pace to develop, at the very least, into a league average #4 defenseman.
Then came the 2010-2011 season, by far the worst of Gervais’ career.
His offensive numbers, never particularly impressive, took a nose dive. Gervais dropped from his 2007-2009 point per game average of 0.245 to 0.113 PPG in 53 games in 2010-11. His advanced statistics followed suit, as the Islanders used him against weak competition (7th amongst NYI defensemen) to little success (-5.7 Corsi Rel).
“The last year I had in New York was a tough one with injuries and was a really hard year for me,” Gervais admitted in a conference call following today’s signing.
Apparently frustrated with the soon-to-be restricted free agent, the Islanders shipped Gervais to Tampa Bay on June 25, 2011 for future considerations. The Lightning quickly signed Gervais to a one-year, $525,000 contract for the 2011-12 NHL season.
Gervais found himself in a battle for playing time in Tampa Bay, scratched for extended periods of time in October and November.
“There was a ranking of all the D-men, there was a lot of traffic there,” Gervais noted. “I knew I was going to going to fight to get my chance.
“Early on through the year there was a lot of bodies there, so I had to kind of wait for my time, but the second I got back in the lineup, things went really well.”
Gervais carved out a role as a third-pairing, soft minutes defenseman for the Lightning, paired mostly with Marc-Andre Bergeron or Brendan Mikkelson. He posted a career-high six goals in 50 games, a 10 goal pace in an 82 game season. For reference, Andrej Meszaros led all Flyers defensemen in scoring during the 2011-12 season with seven goals.
Gervais’ advanced statistics benefited from his easier assignments, as well. His 11.3 Corsi Relative was by far a career high, aided by facing weak competition (6th amongst TBL defensemen) and favorable zone starts (59.9% in offensive zone). Still, a solid defenseman should be expected to flourish with favorable matchups, and Gervais certainly did so.
“I felt really good, and I got back to the hockey I know I can play,” Gervais said. “From a confidence point of view, it really helped me that year and helped me get back on track.”
The Flyers have now placed themselves in a position to benefit from Gervais’ regained confidence.
Viewing Gervais as merely a stop-gap fringe defenseman is unfair, and inaccurate. He was a solid second pairing defenseman from 2007-2009, had a disastrous 2010 season, but rebounded to become a very strong third pairing defenseman in 2011.
Suddenly, the Bruno Gervais signing does not appear to be the acquisition of a fringe defenseman. Instead, it is the rare example of Paul Holmgren buying low on a player with upside.
Bruno Gervais will almost certainly never develop into a top-pairing defenseman that can replace Chris Pronger, or even Matt Carle. But unlike the youthful Gustafsson, Bourdon, and Manning, he has proven in the past that he is capable of taking on extensive top-four minutes if necessary. Unlike Lilja, he does not appear to be long past his prime. And unlike Matt Walker, Gervais has played more than eight NHL games in the past two seasons.
Gervais will be given every chance to win the role as starting sixth defenseman in camp and preseason. It remains to be seen whether Bruno Gervais will prove to be a strong fit for Peter Laviolette’s pressure-oriented system, but Gervais absolutely possesses the talent and track record necessary to succeed as a defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers.