Editor’s Note: It’s “Underdog” week at SB Nation, and, here at Canes Country, we’re going to be taking a look back at some of the more memorable underdog players in the team’s history. The Hurricanes have had a number of players who exceeded expectations as a low draft pick, undrafted player, bargain free agent or seemingly minor trade to carve out a role and become a fan favorite. Today, we feature a player who never let his size (or lack thereof) hold him back.
Nathan Gerbe wasn’t just an underdog with the Carolina Hurricanes, he has been an underdog his entire life. At just 5-foot-4, he is the second shortest player to ever play in the NHL and is shorter than Zdeno Chara’s stick. His lack of size contributed to him falling to the fifth round in 2005, 142nd overall to the Buffalo Sabres.
Even with that lack of size he found success; in his senior season with the Boston College Eagles he was a Hobey Baker Finalist and the 2008 Frozen Four’s most outstanding player. He signed his entry-level contract after that season.
His success didn’t end in college, he also won the AHL Rookie of the Year award during the 2008-2009 season with the Portland Pirates. He would spend one more season mainly in the AHL before becoming an NHL mainstay.
Gerbe was referred to as the “Tasmanian Devil” in Buffalo and it was a nickname well deserved. Gerbe has always been a player that you hate to play against, but you love as a fan. Despite being so small he always comes out of corner battles with the puck and was never scared to get into a full-blown battle in front of the net.
After four seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, he was signed as a free agent with the Canes during the 2013 offseason. I remember thinking that it was a very low risk signing that brought some grit to the team that was needed.
He spent three seasons with the Hurricanes from 2013-2016. Even when the Hurricanes only played the Sabres a couple of times a year, Gerbe would always seem to be a guy whose name was called on the broadcast and who was frustrating to play against. Now the Canes were seeing just how valuable he was.
In Carolina he had two of his best three seasons of his career. In his first season he tied his career high in points with 16 goals and 15 assists for 31 points. In the 2014-2015 season he scored 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points, both on bad Hurricanes teams coached by Kirk Muller and Bill Peters, respectively.
Again, his play went beyond the points. Gerbe immediately became a fan favorite with his style of play, often taking on way bigger opponents and wasn’t scared to use his body and hit much bigger players. In his first season he was one of three players with 16 goals and over 50 hits. In his second season he was one of only three players with 10 goals and over 70 hits.
His speed also meant that he was never out of a play. He would skate back and still pester players to make sure that they couldn’t get off clean shots or didn’t have time to make an easy pass. All players felt rushed when Gerbe was on the ice.
This was never more evident than when he was killing penalties. Over his three seasons with the Hurricanes they were the fifth best penalty killing team in the league with an 83.5% success rate over the three seasons. Gerbe’s two shorthanded goals over this period was also tied for most on the team.
During the 2015-16 season, Gerbe also played a very important role off the ice. He served as a mentor to fellow BC graduate Noah Hanifin, the fifth overall pick in 2015 who made the jump to the NHL as a rookie. Gerbe and his family essentially billeted Hanifin during this season, as the rookie defender lived with them.
After the 2015-2016 season, Gerbe decided to move on from the Hurricanes and sign with the Rangers. When he failed to make the NHL roster he decided to play in Switzerland. He played a season and a half before being signed by the Columbus Blue Jackers. He now serves as a captain of the Cleveland Monsters in the AHL and is signed through next season.
Gerbe went from the ultimate underdog to an 11-year professional career and he isn’t done quite yet.