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Carving his niche

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

BROSSARD – Evolution is the key to survival in the NHL. Just ask Tom Gilbert.

Signed by the Canadiens during the offseason, the 32-year-old defenseman came to Montreal with a reputation as an offensive-defenseman, counting five 25-plus point seasons, including a career-high 45-point campaign. On the power play, the veteran blue-liner’s numbers speak for themselves with 30% of Gilbert’s 204-point career haul coming with the man advantage.

Arriving to a Habs dressing room already stocked with offensive-minded defensemen however, Gilbert quickly realized that he would need to refocus on defense if he was going to maintain his regular spot in the Canadiens lineup, which is just what he’s been doing for some time now.

“Obviously I have a different role these days. We’ve got some excellent attacking defensemen here who excel on the power play. I still try to generate offense whenever I can, but the reason we’re winning games this season is because we play as a team and respect the system that’s in place,” explained Gilbert, who also credits the work of the Canadiens’ goaltending duo as a major contributing factor to his transformation. “My game has really evolved this season, and part of that is because of the two guys behind us. Whether it’s Pricer [Carey Price] or Ticker [Dustin Tokarski] in goal, they give us confidence to play aggressively because we know they’ll get the job done.”

Price and Tokarski can say the same about the Bloomington, MN native, who isn’t afraid to lay his body on the line in the name of lessening his netminders’ workloads.

“Blocking shots is something I’ve been working on for a long time. The goal is to cut passing lanes and break up plays as often as possible while still being in position so the goalie can keep his eye on the puck,” added Gilbert, who leads the Canadiens with 84 blocked shots. “It’s something I’m proud of, because it shows I’m doing my job.”

Blocked shots have become a key statistic in today’s NHL, especially in Montreal. The Canadiens have ranked among the top three shot-blocking teams in the NHL six times over the past 10 seasons, currently sitting fourth overall in the category 43 games into the 2014-15 campaign.

“When you block a shot and you know the guys on the bench appreciate what you’re doing out there, it feels great. It makes it worth it, and it makes all the difference. It pushes you to sacrifice yourself for the team,” noted Gilbert, who has spent the majority of the season patrolling the blue line with teammate Alexei Emelin.

Despite his unmatched ability to absorb rubber, Gilbert’s defensive prowess extends beyond the blocked shots column. Although it’s a statistic whose true value is often criticized, it’s worth mentioning that Gilbert has also compiled a plus-5 differential so far this season, charting positive +/- territory for just the second time in his career.

“I hate being on the ice when the other team scores, be it shorthanded or at even strength. I take pride in my job as a defenseman,” stressed the former 2002 fourth-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche. “You work hard not just for the team, but also for the goalie playing behind you. He’s doing everything he can to make your job easier, and you always want to do the same for him.”

Having reunited with his former Florida teammate in Montreal, Mike Weaver has been among the first to notice the difference in his defensive counterpart.

“He’s adapted well to the style of hockey we play here, and I think he appreciates it, too. He’s the kind of guy we can count on game after game,” praised Weaver, who spent a good part of the 2013-14 season getting to know Gilbert with the Panthers.

Getting the opportunity to share the ice on the same defensive pairing earlier this season for the first time in both of their respective careers, Weaver is thrilled to be able to count on Gilbert’s ability to generate offense while protecting the net.

“It’s cool to see a guy who’s responsible with the puck, but can still get creative,” acknowledged Weaver, who is ranked second among his Canadiens teammates for average shots blocked per game. “It gives you someone on the blue line who can still quickly fire off a shot at the opposing net. He plays a balanced style that’s suited to our system here.”

Vincent Cauchy is a writer for Translated by Steven Nechay.

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