Two straight seasons have ended with career-threatening injuries for Brian Gionta, as both of his biceps have torn, as unlikely an injury to repeat as there is. The tear in 2011-12 was worse than the one from last season's playoffs, but the surgery did put him at risk for not starting the season. That risk has been put aside, but there's always the bigger risk that cumulative injuries could slow Gionta down, as they seem to have done to Travis Moen.
Last season Gionta recovered well from surgery, scoring 14 goals in the shortened season, good for third on the Canadiens. Gionta did this while playing tough minutes with Plekanec, and remains the best defensive winger among the Habs' top-nine forwards.
But Gionta is 34 years old, and he'll be 35 in January. Can we really expect him to continue playing such a vital role on the Habs?
In the following graph, the blue line is Gionta's even-strength Fenwick percentage from 2007 to 2013, the red line is his team's even-strength Fenwick percentage without him on the ice, and the green line is Gionta's offensive-zone start percentage, giving us insight into his usage and role. All statistics are at even strength, and all are rolling 10-game averages. What this means is that aside from the first 10 points in the graph, every point represents a 10-game sample, giving us a better grasp of trends.
With all that information on one graph, it can look a little messy and be tough to decipher, so I've included trend lines for each statistic. To understand the trend lines, blue turns into black, red turns into yellow, and green turns into purple. The x-axis is simply the games to represent time, and the y-axis is the percentage in decimal form, and the placement of the y-axis is the beginning of the 2013 season.
Brian Gionta's career arc is an odd one, to be sure. When most players are in their prime, and he was in his scoring prime, he was used as an exploitation forward similar to David Desharnais on the New Jersey Devils. He was a possession beast in that role, with a wide gap between his numbers and the rest of the team when he was off the ice. As he grew older, he transitioned into being a tough-minutes defensive forward, but he's still able to produce 20+ goals in a season, sometimes even edging towards 30.
Gionta's possession performance has dropped from close to 55% Fenwick to around 52.5%, but the rate at which his role has become more difficult may explain that far better than any decline. Even so, if he is in decline and he's still able to produce positive possession in a tough-minutes role, who cares?
Gionta is never going to hit 60 points again, but his pace of around 25 goals and 45 points from last season is a very good bar to set, especially if he continues to receive minutes on the powerplay. It may surprise some to hear it, but Brian Gionta is still the highest per-minute goal scorer on the powerplay that the Canadiens have. Gionta's predatory instincts around the goal mouth allow him to chip rebounds or tip pucks in, and he has maintained a 20% shooting percentage on the PP over the last three seasons.
Perhaps the most important impact of Gionta though, is the effect that he and Tomas Plekanec have on each other. When the two were apart over the last two seasons, both players were below 50% Corsi, but together they were around 52%, and they play tougher minutes together than they do apart. Putting two players together that have complementary skills yields great results.
If Gionta has a season similar to 2013 (minus the bicep tear), there is really no reason the Canadiens shouldn't retain his services for another contract, especially as it will likely come at a significant discount.