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Better with age

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – A 32-year-old NHL vet, Tom Gilbert continued to bolster his skillset in 2014-15.

Since initially being named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team during his first full season with the Oilers in 2008, the Bloomington, MN native has earned a reputation as a strong puck-moving defenseman with a playmaking first-pass.

Indeed, Gilbert has racked up 30-plus points every time he’s suited up for all 82 regular season games, including a career-high 40-assist campaign in 2008-09.

But when the 6-foot-2, 204-pound defenseman signed with the Canadiens as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014, following a 28-point return to form with the Panthers the season prior, he joined a Habs dressing room already blessed with plenty of firepower coming from the back end.

With P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov well on their way to combining for another 100-plus points on the Montreal blue line, Gilbert would ultimately find his fit in the city by instead differentiating himself on defense.

Having not cracked over 100 blocked shots since leading the Oilers in the category with a career-high 172 in 2010-11, the former Avalanche fourth-round draft pick in 2002 decided to brush off his puck-blocking skills this past season.

And the timing couldn’t have been better.

In a year in which the Canadiens allowed an average of over 30 shots on goal per night, Gilbert chipped in to lessen his netminders’ workloads to the tune of stopping 164 shots from ever reaching the net, good for second among his teammates behind Markov (173).

To put that in perspective, in a season that saw Carey Price put up a league-leading .933 save percentage, Gilbert’s work in front of the net kept an average of 11 shots out of the back of it. That’s not insignificant considering the Canadiens won 20 games in 2014-15 by a single goal.

Taking the term “laying it all on the line” literally on March 21, Gilbert would even block a shot with his face while helping Price preserve a 2-0 shutout against the visiting Sharks.

Sidelined for the next four games with the injury which resulted, the former University of Wisconsin product would return to the ice on April 2 before taking part in all 12 of the Canadiens’ postseason games, nearly tripling his career playoff experience as a result.

No worse for wear despite coming back with a couple of new stitches and sporting a full mask, Gilbert continued to absorb rubber throughout the spring, leading the Canadiens with 33 blocked shots through a pair of playoff series against Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

Finishing the regular season with a plus-10 differential – the highest of his career to date – Gilbert also tied Brendan Gallagher for the team lead in that category in the postseason with a plus-5. Despite his increased defensive workload, the veteran blue-liner still managed to bring the offensive firepower for which he’s become famous, finishing second among Habs defensemen in playoff points behind only Subban.

Rounding out into a steady veteran in his ninth NHL season, Gilbert proved in 2014-15 that he can be as effective at stopping goals as he is at creating them.

Steven Nechay is a writer for canadiens.com

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