Retired NHL defenseman used size to limit star forward’s playmaking ability

Hal Gill is familiar with this line of questioning. He knows that ever since Jaromir Jagr named him as one of the toughest defensemen he had faced in his career, the two have been linked. And with Jagr at 1,884 points, three behind Mark Messier for second on the NHL all-time scoring list entering the Florida Panthers’ game Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres at BB&T Center (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-F, MSG-B, NHL.TV), it seemed only natural to call upon Gill once again. To which he replied, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

For Gill, who played for six NHL teams from 1997-2014, his biggest weapon against Jagr was always his size. The defenseman, who retired after the 2013-14 season, stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 243 pounds. That allowed him to battle the strong and solid Jagr in ways that many other defensemen could not always do.

“The thing is he uses his size so well and he waits for someone to try to compete against his size and then he hits you with his skills,” Gill said. “There’s guys that have his size and there’s guys that have his skill, but there’s not too many that have the size and skill to put it together.

“When I was playing against him, I was always careful to try not to commit too much. The second he feels like you’ve overcommitted, he’ll take advantage of you. At the same time, you can’t give him too much space, so it becomes a tough task.”

That hasn’t changed all that much, even as the NHL has made alterations in rules, even as the game has evolved around the 44-year-old Jagr.

“I watch him now and he still does it, where he puts his back end into someone and it looks like he’s just going to protect the puck, then he uses that positioning and uses his size to make a great play,” Gill said. “I was a young kid coming in, playing against him and obviously I watched him growing up and saw what he was doing. To get a chance to play against him was pretty awesome, with Mario [Lemieux] and him on the same side it was a tough task, but that’s what you play the game for, to go up against the best.”

But how did he do it? How did he go up against Jagr? How did he succeed when so many others didn’t?

“I think a lot of my success against him was because I was 6-7,” Gill said. “I think when he played against smaller guys he used his reach and [would] kind of hold guys out and I was able to — especially back in the day — I was allowed to hook and hold and grab and get at his hands and use my size to disrupt his play. So I think a lot of it just has come off of size.

“I try to tell guys not to overcommit … once he gets a little inch on you, he can turn it into a foot, and that’s what he’s good at, putting his back end into you and waiting [until] you lean a little bit to the left and then he’s gone to the right.”

Which leads to this as the most plausible advice to defensemen looking to take on Jagr, even at this stage of his career: “Go drink a lot of milk,” Gill said. “Grow. Quick.”

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