Tom Gilbert, No. 1 Defenseman

Jonathan Willis
November 29 2011 08:31PM

More than one Oilers player has opened eyes with what he's done on the ice this season. From rookies to veterans, the club is bursting at the seams with pleasant surprises – whether it’s Nikolai Khabibulin’s bounce-back season, Ryan Smyth’s unexpectedly superb play, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins walking on to the team as an 18-year old and scoring at a point-per-game pace.

One of those pleasant surprises has been the play of Tom Gilbert. A polarizing figure among Oilers fans, Gilbert is a rarity: a competent, perpetually healthy NHL-calibre defenseman on a blue line that’s been handed over to the young, the unknown, the barely capable and the injury-prone far too often over the last few years. Over the first quarter of this season, he’s hit new highs in terms of performance.

The pairing of Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid have been tasked with the job of shutting down the very best opponents. Smid too is having a great season, but Gilbert has clearly been the Oilers’ best defenseman. He’s played 591 minutes so far this season, nearly 100 more than regular partner Smid, and more than 250 more than any other defender on the team.

Gilbert’s been an auxiliary option on the power play – both Corey Potter and Cam Barker have been getting more ice-time per game – but he’s still on pace for 18 power play points, four more than any Oilers’ player managed last season.

On the penalty kill, Gilbert’s also a key ingredient. Among Oilers, only Ladislav Smid (3:56) is playing more than Gilbert’s average of three minutes and 43 seconds per game shorthanded. Those two defenseman have been the backbone of a much-improved unit – the ninth-best in the NHL entering action against Nashville last night.

Yet, it’s Gilbert’s work at even-strength that really stands out. He and Smid have been hard-matched against the best possible opposition. He’s playing more than 18 minutes per game, and doing the bulk of the puck distribution (even as Smid handles the bulk of the hitting game). Yet, whether one grades his performance by scoring chance or by eye, he’s done a superb job of shutting down those players.

In other words, Gilbert has filled the role of number one defenseman for the Oilers and filled it well. Not only has he (along with Smid) done a fine job of shutting down other team’s best lines, but he’s also on pace for 38 points – the second best offensive output of his career.

Gilbert’s strong work has been one of the key ingredients in the Oilers’ hot start – not bad for a guy so undervalued that he was completely ignored in The Hockey News’ 2011-12 Oilers preview.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 rubbertrout
November 29 2011, 08:37PM
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Gilbert has been great. Plus his hair is really dreamy.

Bingo bitches.

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#2 Captain Obvious
November 29 2011, 10:01PM
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I love how commentators when faced with the enormity of how wrong they are about Gilbert try and make it seem like they haven't always been wrong.

The guys who didn't like Gilbert in the past are the guys who don't know anything about hockey and shouldn't be listened to in the present.

Here's a news flash. Gilbert has always been good and you have always been wrong.

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#3 Rob...
November 29 2011, 09:39PM
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On a team with such a newbie defense corp, Gilbert didn't have to improve one iota to make it as one of the top 2 d-men. Props to him for his efforts to improve both the technical and psychological aspects of his game. If there's hope for him then there's a ton of hope for Paajarvi as well.

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#4 Racki
November 29 2011, 08:57PM
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I haven't been impressed it all with Gilbert the past two years (not including this season). I've always hoped he could improve his game though. However, this season he's become the defenseman that I'd hoped he would. This year he's been great defensively... he's making nice hits... he makes great decisions with and without the puck.. and he knows when to jump up on a play.

Him and Smid have made a hell of a pairing this year, and I'm really extremely pleased with both.

Gilbert's transformation has been almost as much of a surprise as Khabibulin's. I never really hated Gilbert, like some do.. I just never thought of him as a top pairing. I'd say this year he's matured a lot.

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#5 Metal&Oil
November 29 2011, 09:10PM
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I won't back down from calling him soft and saying he lacked the proper energy in past seasons but full credit to Tom for using that criticism as motivation and doing something about it!

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#6 imallinkr
November 29 2011, 09:39PM
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Sounds like it might be a good time to trade him to the Ducks for Ryan then!!! Gilbert, Gagner and Magnus?

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#7 Metal&Oil
November 29 2011, 10:13PM
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@Captain Obvious

Obviously Gilbert has always been a good player. You don't make it to the best hockey league in the world by luck. My beef with Tom was his unwillingness to engage physically while possessing the tools to do so(large frame). His play this season furthers this point. Even Renney saw this and had a chat with Gibby about it during player exit meetings at the end of last season.

Good on Renney for bringing this up and great on Tom for listening!

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#8 common sense
November 29 2011, 10:38PM
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Yeah, he's become a decent defensemen but certainly not in the top echelons. He's not of the calibre of a Weber, Suter, Keith , Seabrook, Doughty.

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#9 stevezie
November 30 2011, 12:25AM
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Racki wrote:

I haven't been impressed it all with Gilbert the past two years (not including this season). I've always hoped he could improve his game though. However, this season he's become the defenseman that I'd hoped he would. This year he's been great defensively... he's making nice hits... he makes great decisions with and without the puck.. and he knows when to jump up on a play.

Him and Smid have made a hell of a pairing this year, and I'm really extremely pleased with both.

Gilbert's transformation has been almost as much of a surprise as Khabibulin's. I never really hated Gilbert, like some do.. I just never thought of him as a top pairing. I'd say this year he's matured a lot.

I've always defended Gilbert by saying, "it's not that he's bad, he's just not as good as the role he's being forced into. He's a great #3." Now, all of the sudden, he is as good as the role. Still the team would be ahppier with one more top 3 d-man, but if we can pla the rest of the year with just one of Whitney and/or Potter healthy (assuming what we've seen so far is the real Potter), then maybe we won't suck. A lot fewer "ifs" than previous years.

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#10 South of Cowtown
November 30 2011, 07:46AM
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"it's not that he's bad, he's just not as good as the role he's being forced into. He's a great #3." Now, all of the sudden, he is as good as the role. Good take, applies to Horcoff as well.

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#11 dawgbone
November 30 2011, 08:22AM
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common sense wrote:

Yeah, he's become a decent defensemen but certainly not in the top echelons. He's not of the calibre of a Weber, Suter, Keith , Seabrook, Doughty.

That's probably why he's paid less than all of them (minus Suter who will be paid more after this year).

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#12 Dman09
November 30 2011, 08:26AM
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Racki wrote:

I haven't been impressed it all with Gilbert the past two years (not including this season). I've always hoped he could improve his game though. However, this season he's become the defenseman that I'd hoped he would. This year he's been great defensively... he's making nice hits... he makes great decisions with and without the puck.. and he knows when to jump up on a play.

Him and Smid have made a hell of a pairing this year, and I'm really extremely pleased with both.

Gilbert's transformation has been almost as much of a surprise as Khabibulin's. I never really hated Gilbert, like some do.. I just never thought of him as a top pairing. I'd say this year he's matured a lot.

I think Gilbert has always had this ability in him and we saw it in his Rookie season. For whatever reason he went away from that and thats why people were disappointed and unhappy.

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#13 jono
November 30 2011, 08:36AM
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imallinkr wrote:

Sounds like it might be a good time to trade him to the Ducks for Ryan then!!! Gilbert, Gagner and Magnus?

This is a joke right? Our best defenseman on a team with 2 maybe 3 top four defenseman for... another forward, albeit a great one doesn't add up. Missing something here.

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#14 Archaeologuy
November 30 2011, 09:32AM
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I'll grant that Gilbert has been a relatively stable defenseman, obviously very healthy, but this year, by eye, has looked different.

He worked on his shot and he appears to be much more physical during the play and after it. Whatever he did this off-season, he should be sharing with the rest of the group. I think he took a B game up to a solid B+. He looks more confident out there.

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#15 Oilerbill
November 30 2011, 10:02AM
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Gilbert is still soft but he's getting better. I am glad people are finally starting to see that Smid was worth keeping all along. One of the few physical Dmen we have had the last couple of years and armchair GM's keep trying to trade him. I don't get it. He is just getting to the maturation age of NHL defencmen. His best years are ahead of him and when the Oil are contending I have a feeling he will be a pillar on the blueline.

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#16 jono
November 30 2011, 10:43AM
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@Oilerbill

Not just armchair GMs, wasn't this guy going to Ottawa in an ill fated trade a couple of years ago? Glad to have him now.

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#17 FastOil
November 30 2011, 11:46AM
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I don't think "soft" is a fair criticism for every player. I prefer tough players, but physical players get hurt.

Somebody has to be on the ice, and not that we have experienced it for a while, especially in the playoffs. Salo has torpedoed many a Canuck playoff with his injuries. Pronger did it to Philly. A good player who can stay healthy is a very important asset.

If ST can come up with another 1-2 D (that plays) the D corp should start looking pretty good. I really would prefer that all of them be able to move the puck at least at a basic level. Having only one puck mover per tandem isn't going to work well in the long run.

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#18 Dan the Man
November 30 2011, 12:38PM
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Is it possible that defense could end up being a real strength for the Oil in a few years? Whitney, Gilbert, Smid, Petry and then 1 or 2 of Klefbom, Gernat, Marincin and Musil and I'd also expect 1 of Teubert or Peckham to round into a solid physical 3rd pairing guy. Not bad at all....decent size, some guys with a wide range of skills as LT would say and also a few physical stay at home types.

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#19 Pucker
November 30 2011, 12:56PM
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Good article. I've been a staunch supporter of Gilbert. I wouldn't have called him soft. He never bailed on getting hit or anything. I wouldn't have called him hard either, although that hit in the last game sure looked good.

I think if you throw away his absolutely terrible first 8-10 weeks from last season, his numbers will have looked pretty good.

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#20 Milli
November 30 2011, 01:06PM
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When he stood up (whoever) on Nashville at the blueline.....That was beautiful man!

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#21 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 30 2011, 03:59PM
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@Willis

Nice article on Gilbert. Needs some numbers though... I believe it but I still want to see your work.

RE: past critiques etc.:

I think it's fair to say he's a mid-late bloomer. Fifth full season at 28 is maybe a tad late for D-men to hit their stride. But probably not by much and he's never played horrible to my eye.

His pedigree is hardly that of a future #1 so prior criticisms of poor play are probably more related to how much responsibility he was given at a early stage in his career as a result of injury and lack of depth.

But all that matters now is the Oil by luck, patience and grooming have created a great leader on the backend (with a little help from Gilbert no doubt)

PS. this blog needs more Smid!!!

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#22 Spydyr
December 01 2011, 11:25AM
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Never thought it would come to this but I like Gilbert's game this year.

Surprising how a little bit of toughness and a edge to the game changes a player.

Standing people up at the blue line....who would of thunk it.

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