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Gleason Is The Linchpin

When the Carolina Hurricanes dealt Jack Johnson — the third overall pick in the 2005 draft and a projected franchise defenseman — to the Los Angeles Kings prior to the 2006-07 season, the media and Canes fans questioned why GM Jim Rutherford would trade such a valuable asset.

Off to Hollywood were the rights to Johnson (who joined the Kings late in the season) and cap burden Oleg Tverdovsky. The Canes got back a third-line center, Eric Belanger, they hoped could replace Matt Cullen, and Tim Gleason — a one-time Ottawa first round pick who was pegged as a defense-first blueliner and potential leader.

The outrage was immediate. Johnson was considered second only to Sidney Crosby in his draft year (unless you were Brian Burke, who chose Bobby Ryan at No. 2 for the Ducks) and, despite Johnson's perceived unwillingness to come to Raleigh, the return Rutherford landed was critically panned as desperate. Yes, Carolina was trying to follow up their Stanley Cup victory and needed another defenseman since Johnson was unwilling to leave the University of Michigan to join the Canes, plus ridding the budget of Tverdovsky's contract was nice. But Belanger and Gleason were not the big names many thought Rutherford could get for a supposed can't-miss prospect.

Belanger never did work out. The lone French-Canadian on a tight team that had just accomplished the ultimate team goal, the veteran centerman seemed unhappy in Raleigh and wasn't the type of offensive player needed to fill Cullen's role. Belanger lasted 56 games before he was traded Feb. 9, 2007, to Nashville for former Hurricane Joe Vasicek (Belanger was dealt back into the Southeast Division before ever playing for the Predators, heading to playoff-bound Atlanta for Vitaly Vishnevski the next day, a move by Preds GM David Piole that irked Rutherford).

Gleason, on the other hand, looked like the real deal. Was he a dominant two-way force like Johnson was expected to become and had been in college? No. But he was solid in his own end, tough as nails, and the type of player that would do anything to protect his teammates and help them win.

As time passed, many fans not only warmed to the trade because it landed the team Gleason, but embraced it as one of Rutherford's better moves in recent years. Sure, Johnson's injuries woes and less-than-expected production made it easier, but it was more a situation of critics realizing that heart is often worth more than skill. And Gleason had heart in spades.

Gleason has, at times, been hindered by injuries, often due to the rugged, do-anything-to-win style he plays. But after playing 80 games last season and establishing himself as the heir apparent to soon-to-retired defenseman Glen Wesley, Gleason was rewarded with a four-year, $11 million contract. Still just 25 but with 262 NHL games under his belt, Gleason entered 2008-09 as one of the faces of the franchise and an emerging fan favorite.

The Michigan native has arguably played his best hockey this season. Yes, there have been some defensive lapses, but nothing that shouldn't be expected from a young d-man who's still honing his craft (something that's easy to forget because of how much he's played at such a young age). More impressive is how his presence on the ice adds another dimension to the Hurricanes. Not only is he tough and fearless — his fight win against bigger Milan Lucic last year is a perfect illustration, plus he once took on giant Zdeno Chara while with L.A. — but his intensity and drive is something that clearly impacts his teammates when he's in the lineup (and I'm sure in practice and the locker room).

The problem has been when Gleason is out of the lineup, which has been more often this season than anyone wanted. In the 10 games Gleason has missed, Carolina has just two wins and managed only four of 20 possible points. It looked like he would return to the lineup last night in Ottawa, but when he was again in the pressbox, his absence on the ice was evident. There were several turnovers that led to Senators goals or opportunities, along with a general lack of poise and toughness from the majority of the defense. You can bet if Gleason was on the ice when Dany Heatley interfered with Cam Ward on the Senators' back-breaking third goal by Antoine Vermette, Heatley would've at least been on his rear in the crease.

Gleason should be back in the lineup tomorrow at home against Toronto, a game that could very well be the most crucial of the season for Carolina. And while one can't expect a player coming off an injury and returning to the lineup after missing three games to be in top form, Gleason's value goes well beyond what he's able to do on his skates or with his stick. WIth Eric Staal poised to be the next captain of the Hurricanes, you can bet Gleason is just as likely to one day wear an "A" on his jersey.

But No. 6 doesn't need a letter on his chest to act like a leader, it's in his blood. And perhaps more than ever, the Canes need that on the ice.