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The Progress Report: Gilbert on the Rise

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Tom Gilbert defends against Toronto's Brett Lebda (Photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Coming into the 2010-11 season, Oilers fans knew there would be holes in the lineup as the organization began the rebuilding process. Most were concerned with the fact that the defence group appeared to have limited experience and no significant high-end talent to make up the most important area of a young team’s roster.

Perhaps on some level, the blueline has featured some of the season’s biggest surprises. Ryan Whitney has continued his strong play and has even elevated his already masterful craft, Ladislav Smid has continued an upward development curve, and Theo Peckham has emerged as a bruising NHL defenceman.

Kurtis Foster and Jim Vandermeer are also fitting in nicely with the organization and have provided some good production in their respective roles.

Then you have 27-year old veteran Tom Gilbert. The Bloomington, MN native is coming off a disappointing 2009-10 campaign in which he only scored five goals and 31 points; his lowest offensive output since procuring the full-time NHL position in the 2007-08 season with the Oilers.

Unfortunately, of those 31 points, 19 came in the final 16 games as the inclusion of Ryan Whitney on his pairing seemed to have a renowned effect.

While the sliding offensive numbers were concerning for the bulk of the year, it was Gilbert’s defensive play that garnered most of the unwanted attention. The smooth, puck-moving blueliner isn’t known for an outgoing physical game, which seemed to draw criticism from Oil Country’s more vocal supporters.  Turnovers and other miscues only compounded the frustration.

His gentlemanly attitude was often misconstrued as a lack of intensity and desire to succeed. For those that have had the opportunity to witness his practice habits, relationship with teammates and leadership both on and off the ice, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, it could be argued that his mild-mannered personality has been the reason for his 2010-11 renaissance. Patience in his own game and an unflappable mentality could potentially have helped him remain on an even keel as he worked through his early season struggles.

For Gilbert, there has never been room to hide. According to Behind the Net’s in-depth statistics, he has played against the most difficult competition among his fellow defenceman last season. Even with Ryan Whitney playing an MVP-like campaign for the Oilers, Theo Peckham and Gilbert respectively lead the defensive charge this season as well.

While at the 32-game mark Gilbert still boasts a minus-seven rating on the season, his past 16 games have seen quite a turnaround. In this period, Gilbert has recorded eight points and a plus-one rating; both are at or near his expected numbers as he quickly put the brakes on a slow start.

Gilbert is no longer paired with Whitney despite their chemistry, meaning that much of the consistent play that we've seen over the last little while should be credited to the man himself.

Tom Gilbert (Photo courtesy of Getty Images).
Offensively, the rangy blueliner is still a little off the pace of a 40-point campaign. With five-goals on the year, however, he looks poised to approach his career-high rookie-season total of 13. With 50 games to play, this is certainly an achievable goal.

Of course, offence isn’t the only metric by which Gilbert should be evaluated. With the stunning play of Ryan Whitney, in addition to the offensive ability of Kurtis Foster, Gilbert has been receiving much less time on the powerplay to help boost his offensive numbers.

With 2.61 minutes per 60 on the powerplay, Gilbert sits well back of Whitney (4.31) and Foster (3.87) in this regard. In many ways, this has been unfamiliar territory. In 2009-10, Gilbert was often on the first pairing with late-season arrival Ryan Whitney when the offensive surge took place.

Although playing behind powerplay specialists has become a regular occurrence for Gilbert, the drop in minutes from last season has potentially impacted his offensive mindset as he now quarterbacks the second unit.

Gilbert will always be known for his presence as a puck-moving defenceman with an offensive flare, but of late it has been his defensive play that reigns superior.

Quietly, Gilbert has further established a hybrid role. For the past two seasons, he has spent the most time killing penalties on the team; an average of 2.62 minutes per 60. While the penalty kill has suffered, and Gilbert certainly should accept some blame for that, the willingness to compete has provided some excellent value for the team.

After all, Gilbert brings a unique skill-set to the role that others may not excel with. He has excellent patience, vision, and ability to read the play. His positioning is superb, and is reflected in his blocked shots statistics. This season, Gilbert has blocked 73 shots which puts him well ahead of his teammates and fellow blueliners, in addition to a 13th overall ranking among the NHL’s league leaders. 

For a player not necessarily known for his physical edge, his commitment in this area has been an invaluable tool for the Oilers defensive corps.

Like any developing player, there’s still room for improvement. But with his confidence and defensive game on the rise, Gilbert looks poised to continue what has been an excellent stretch. It’s up to him to maintain and exceed the expectations of his recent surge.

Author: Ryan Dittrick |

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