Gilbert Article

Dennis Gilbert was struggling to crack the lineup at the start of his first professional season with the Rockford IceHogs, the AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Gilbert had been a third-round draft pick by Chicago three years earlier and had enjoyed a decorated career at the University of Notre Dame. Still, ice time was hard to come by on a veteran-laden Rockford defense corps. Rockford’s captain, Andrew Campbell, had advice for Gilbert early in the season.

“Gibby, you’re a good player, but there’s seven returners,” Gilbert recalled Campbell saying. “When you get in, you’ve got to do something to stay in.”

So, in Gilbert’s fourth AHL game on a Sunday night against Manitoba, he fought opposing forward JC Lipon. He fought again about two weeks later, then four more times that season.

Six years later, the willingness to fight remains a hallmark of Gilbert’s game – one he will bring to his hometown Buffalo Sabres after signing a one-year, $825,000 contract on Monday.

“It’s not something that to needs to happen 15, 20 times a year,” Gilbert said. “But to be able to do that, you know, six, seven, eight times a season and your teammates know that someone’s there to do that for you, I think it’s a big thing in the room.”

The Sabres signed Gilbert as part of a concerted effort by general manager Kevyn Adams to make the lineup harder to play against. The team also added forwards Beck Malenstyn, Sam Lafferty, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (via free agency), all of whom would have led Sabres forwards in hits last season.

Learning to fit that profile has been part of the journey for Gilbert, who at 27 years old played his first full NHL season with the Calgary Flames in 2023-24. Gilbert credits his two years in Calgary – particularly playing for coach Darryl Suter – with rounding out his game.

“(I’m) definitely a defensive-first player,” he said. “I try to be extremely hard to play against. You can look at that in a multitude of ways. Obviously, I’ve been willing to fight in my career and that’s something that’s not going to change.”

Gilbert has 12 fights in 82 NHL games. But being hard to play against, he explained, goes beyond occasionally dropping the gloves.

“It’s being super physical,” he said. “It’s after the whistle. It’s boxing guys out, giving a cross-check. If somebody takes a run at somebody on your team and they don’t even connect, but you go over and say something to them or you’re getting in their face – all that stuff is a big part of that.

Dennis Gilbert addresses the media

Adams said he expects Gilbert to add a different dimension to the Sabres defense corps, which boasts high-end offensive skill in Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Bowen Byram.

“Last year he really took a big step and turned himself into an NHL defenseman,” Adams said. “He knows what he needs to do to play in this league. He's a big, strong kid who's very, very competitive and continues to work on his game to get better. Not afraid to fight, he's done that a number of times. He competes hard.

“… When I look at our group now, we have a lot of skill, we have a lot of talent. I think we've proven in this league over the last couple of years that we have guys that can be as talented as anyone and make plays. We needed to round the group out, we needed to get harder.”

Adams is familiar with Gilbert, having coached the defenseman through the Academy of Hockey at LECOM Harborcenter. It’s one of several ties Gilbert has to his hometown organization.

Gilbert has played against Alex Tuch, a Syracuse native, since the two were young. He’s spent recent summers skating with current Sabres players. He grew up as a fan during the first tenure of coach Lindy Ruff, idolizing players like Danny Briere and Brian Campbell on teams that went to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals. (He would later be mentored by Campbell with the Blackhawks.)

“The city is just amazing,” Gilbert said. “Like, I was getting days off of school for playoff games. It was a special time and it’s a super passionate fanbase here. I think when you think of those times, you think of the players, but you think of Lindy a lot. It definitely makes signing here at this point in time a little more special.”

Gilbert said he always had the possibility of one day playing for the Sabres in the back of his mind. The proximity to his family and the coincidental timing with the return of Ruff behind the bench are both factors that will make it a special stop on his NHL journey.

But, perhaps even more so than hometown sentiment, his fit within the Sabres’ roster made it the right opportunity.

“I think at this point of my career, it’s a good time for it,” he siad. “Hopefully I can come in and help.”