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Steady as he goes

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Tom Gilbert is proving to be a valuable asset on defense early on this season.

Among the Habs’ most-utilized players game in and game out, the nine-year NHL veteran is quickly earning his stripes in Montreal, exhibiting the trademark composure, patience and craftiness that has long defined his game. Logging just over 22 minutes of ice time each night, Gilbert has rapidly become a go-to guy for Michel Therrien & Co. in every conceivable situation, whether at even-strength, on the power play or when the Canadiens find themselves down a man.

Being given those types of responsibilities from the get-go has suited the Bloomington, MN native just fine, affording him the chance to hit the ground running in his new hockey home.

“Ice time reflects a level of trust that your coach has in you. I’ve been given the opportunity to play specialty teams, a lot of 5-on-5, and a lot of time at the end of games. It’s good. It’s about confidence. It’s good to be playing knowing that your coach has confidence in what you bring,” offered Gilbert, who signed a two-year contract with the Canadiens back on July 1st after wrapping up a one-year stint with the Florida Panthers in 2013-14. “It’s good to know that I’m doing the right things and they’re putting me out there in those spots because of it.”

And, why wouldn’t they? Not only does the 31-year-old boast the highest plus-minus differential of any defender on the roster at plus-4, but he’s also registered a team-leading 32 blocked shots through 14 games. That being said, it appears that the former fourth-round selection of the Colorado Avalanche back in 2002 has swiftly overcome any and all obstacles that inevitably come with joining a brand new defense corps anywhere in the NHL.

“It’s always new trying to build chemistry and trying to fit in and understand the team, whether it’s in terms of systems or team play. It can come pretty quick sometimes, and that’s the way it’s kind of gone with the Canadiens. It’s sunk in,” confided Gilbert, who spent the majority of his NHL career in Edmonton, donning an Oilers uniform for five-plus seasons between 2006-07 and 2011-12 before being dealt to the Minnesota Wild. “You start to read how players play and where they’re going to be. You kind of figure out all of those things about your team. I’m starting to settle in and feel more and more comfortable.

“Winning does that. It’s a big factor. When you’re winning, it makes such a difference,” added the University of Wisconsin grad, who got his one and only taste of the NHL postseason back in 2012-13 in the Twin Cities as a member of the Wild. “I think winning’s been the biggest thing. It just lets you go out there and play, because you know every other guy is there for you.”

It also didn’t hurt Gilbert’s cause to have joined a group of players that, like him, enjoy pushing themselves to excel in every aspect of the game.

“You definitely have your veteran guys that have been in the league for a while, and we’ve got a good group of young guys, too. It’s just a good mix. Sometimes, you don’t have the understanding of roles, but I think we really understand what we have to do. I think we all just want to win. We all want to get involved. We want to get everyone into the game. We don’t worry about everything else beyond that,” confided Gilbert, who has spent the better part of his time patrolling the Canadiens’ blue line alongside 14-year NHL veteran, Andrei Markov, but has recently been paired with Alexei Emelin. “We just work hard all over the ice. We work for each other. That’s going to win you games.”

If Gilbert appreciates what his new teammates bring to the table, it’s safe to say that feeling is mutual.

“He’s not a flashy guy, but he consistently gets the job done. I look at the little parts of his game,” stressed Mike Weaver, who was a teammate of Gilbert’s for 55 games last season in Florida. “I look at how a guy is on him, and how he’s able to actually wait the guy out with the puck. He’s got such great poise back there. He’s able to make some great sound plays on a consistent basis. I always look at players differently and I get excited about certain plays like that. At least two or three times a game, I’m always telling Tom – “Hey! Great play!”

“It’s also amazing to see somebody that’s able to do so well on both the power play and fill a big role on the penalty kill. You look at his average ice time, and those are really tough minutes, especially when we’re short-handed,” added Weaver. “Any time he’s asked to go out or double shift, he’s the first guy to say that he’s good to go.”

While Gilbert’s fellow rearguards have a healthy respect for the 2006 Frozen Four winner’s ability to play a steady brand of hockey and keep things simple, those charged with leading the Canadiens up front insist that the Midwesterner will prove to be a valuable weapon on offense as time marches on.

“It’s nice to have another right-handed shot back there. He’s very good with the puck. He’s already helped us a lot. When it comes to our transition game, he’s putting the puck on your tape pretty quick to start the rush. He’s just an all-around solid player,” praised Rene Bourque, who was a teammate of Gilbert’s at Wisconsin for two seasons in the early 2000’s. “I’ve seen what he’s capable of on offense. He was our most offensive defenseman in college. Right now, he might not be jumping into the play in order to make sure he’s responsible defensively, but when he sees an opening, he’ll jump in that spot and pinch and try to get in the slot and get that shot off. You see it in practice. He’s very skilled.”

Gilbert’s career numbers suggest Bourque just might be right. The 6’2, 204 lb. defenseman, who was the Panthers’ second-highest scoring rearguard last season, boasts 40 goals and 206 points in 534 NHL games. In other words, he knows how to get on the scoresheet.

“He’s a good distributor. He’s a good quarterback. It’s something that we were lacking last season,” insisted assistant coach Jean-Jacques Daigneault, who admitted that he wasn’t all that familiar with the Canadiens’ No. 77 prior to his joining the CH four months ago. “I know that Gibby had a goal this season of producing from the back side. It’s something we’ve stressed with all of our defensemen. It’s a pre-requisite. The thing I’m stressing with him is to shoot the puck more. I feel that he might be a little reluctant or hesitant to shoot because he’s a selfless player. He’d rather distribute the puck instead of being known as the person who took the shot on net when there was a passing option available. But, at some point you need to have a shooter’s mentality. You get some shots on net or join the rush when the time is right, and anything can happen.”

Conscious of those expectations, Gilbert is actively looking to pitch in on offense under the right circumstances.

“I’ve been up and down the ice a little more as of late, and I’m trying to get myself more involved. I’m always thinking defense first, though. But, I’m starting to find my rhythm, and I’m finding flow up and down the ice. That’s where offense starts,” offered Gilbert, who scored his first career goal with the Canadiens on October 28th in Calgary. “As long as I’m getting myself moving and getting involved, plays will open up. You’ve just got to be patient. I’ve been in the league a while now, and I know you can’t force productivity. You’ve just got to do the right things, and the points individually will come.”

It’s just that sense of self-assurance – and a relentless work ethic – that will enable Gilbert to thrive in his new gig with the Canadiens.

“Tom has really exceeded my expectations. I’ve seen him play in the past, but when you see somebody on a regular basis, then you really get to know what you have in front of you. I think the best is yet to come,” concluded Daigneault. “He’s disciplined and diligent about his career. He works hard, and he doesn’t take any shortcuts. I think that playing with a team that’s demanding, that has high expectations and that’s been doing well in recent years will only bring his level of hockey up another notch. He’s just been a great fit for our team.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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