Playing defense in the NHL during the post-lockout era is one of the toughest jobs in sports. Gone are the days of clutch and grab, subtle stickwork is now rewarded with a whistle and 2 minutes in the box and the old standby (holding the stick) is now called "holding the stick" and comes with 2 more minutes in the sinbin. An entire player type (the plodding defender with size and a terrific wingspan) was nailed to the Cory Cross when management discovered faster wheels were required in the "new NHL." What happens when a "wheels" defenseman falls on hard times?
The first thing we need to do is identify what "hard times" look like. When we say "my eyes tell me" history often shows that our eyes are wrong. So, let’s have a look at Tom Gilbert over the last several seasons and see what his plus minus numbers were doing:
- 07-08: Gilbert -6 on a -14 team
- 08-09: Gilbert +6 on a +7 team
- 09-10: Gilbert -10 on a -56 team
- 10-11: Gilbert -7 on a -17 team (so far)
If we can agree that a fair measure of an "NHL pairing" is one third of a team’s overall plus minus for a season (three pairings, divide the overall number by three) we get this:
- 07-08: -6 when -5 would be average
- 08-09: +6 when +2 would be average
- 09-10: -10 when -19 would be average
- 10-11: -7 when -6 would be average (so far)
So, a brief summary of his career might go like this: impressive as a rookie (just past average, that’s terrific for a rookie); well above average in seasons two and three and then (so far) about average in year four. Fair?
I know relCorsi is a dirty word around these parts, so won’t get too far into it. I will say that Gilbert is in the black relCorsi this season and has been every season of his NHL career:
- 07-08: +1.5
- 08-09: +2.6
- 09-10: +8.1
- 10-11: +2.0
I absolutely know Tom Gilbert has been the goat on many plays this season, and that he spent much of last year looking exposed. History teaches us that NHL defensemen lose previous performance levels for (mainly) two reasons: injury and changes in how they are used. I have no evidence of injury in the case of Gilbert (although he blocks a lot of shots so we know he’s banged up a little bit at least by this time in the season), so we fall back on how he’s being used. Let’s list Gilbert’s playing time (and when he’s used) by season:
- 07-08: 17:24EV; 2:15PP; 2:51PK
- 08-09: 16:31EV; 2:54PP; 2:32PK
- 09-10: 16:46EV; 2:59PP; 2:39PK
- 10-11: 17:54EV; 2:52PP; 2:47PK
Man, that is consistent. Seriously. Tom Gilbert plays every game and plays a lot every game. I bet there aren’t many NHL defensemen who have delivered that kind of consistency over the last 4 seasons. With that kind of consistent playing time, has he been consistent offensively?
- 07-08: 0.98 5×5/60; 3.01 5×4/60
- 08-09: 1.30 5×5/60; 3.91 5×4/60
- 09-10: 0.92 5×5/60; 2.24 5×4/60
- 10-11: 1.22 5×5/60; 0.00 5×4/60
Pretty consistent at even strength and his PP numbers were good until this season. We should probably assume Gilbert will return to the median in this era and that the putts will drop as the season rolls along (all 10-11 stats will be more reliable as the GP rises). So consistent according to our friend math. Hmmm.
May I suggest something? I think maybe some of us (certainly me) are viewing the game through those pre-lockout eyes and all those mistakes are adding up quickly in our collective brains. Tom Gilbert has been exposed this season (and much of last) but that’s part of the new NHL. If the opposition is going to fly 40 sorties into your airspace every night (and you can’t use the weapons that were previously available) then a lot more bombs are going to drop. And if the goalie is less than league average then some or a lot is going to get on you. It has been this way since Henry Shrapnel was a kid.
I believe that’s partly what we’re seeing here, along with Gilbert being in a bad stretch in terms of decision making. He’s an NHL veteran now, those tentative decisions will soon be replaced by those butter outlet passes. Gilbert should recover, his resume suggests he’s quality and there are no injuries we know about with this player.