Tom Gilbert, Buttery Soft

I have to admit that I get my nose a little bit out of joint when people start talking about how ‘soft’ Tom Gilbert is. I realize that he’s a 6’4” finesse defenceman who writes funny things in his blog over at the Oilers’ official site, but I think there is at least one item that should throw the ‘soft’ description out the window.

That item is shot-blocking.

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In 2010-11, Tom Gilbert (pictured above) has blocked 156 shots (on pace for 188). There are a few ways to look at that total. It is…

  • 43 more blocks than the Oilers second-ranked player, Theo Peckham
  • The fourth highest total in the entire NHL
  • 78 times as many blocks as tough guy Steve MacIntyre has
  • An indication that Tom Gilbert isn’t a good enough skater to get out of the way of the puck.

In 2009-10, Tom Gilbert (pictured above along with friends watching a playoff game) blocked 165 shots. Once again, there are a few ways to look at that number. It is…

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  • 26 more blocks than second-ranked Jason Strudwick, and 74 more than the next closest player.
  • The 10th highest total in the entire NHL
  • More than five times as many as Sheldon Souray, who at that point in time still had his name mentioned by fans in the same sentence as ‘next captain of the team.’
  • Proof that Tom Gilbert is a turnover machine; if he didn’t turn the puck over so many times people wouldn’t shoot it at him so often.

In 2008-09, Tom Gilbert (pictured above, unsuccessfully hawking bicycle tires) blocked 136 shots. As usual, there are a few different comparisons we might make with that number. It is…

  • The second-highest total on the team, 21 back of Steve Staios and 49 more than the next closest player.
  • The 32nd highest total in the NHL.
  • Twice as many as half the defencemen on the team (Souray, Smid, and Strudwick) managed.
  • A number that just goes to show how strange professional athletes are – here’s a guy who lives in abject terror of contact with a hockey player on the other team, but likes getting hit by a vulcanized rubber disc moving at incredible speed.

In 2007-08, Tom Gilbert (pictured above, with BFF Robert Nilsson) blocked 159 shots. Once again, there is more than one perspective on that total. It is…  

  • The second-highest total on the team, 28 back of Steve Staios and 64 more than the next closest Oiler.
  • The 11th highest total in the league.
  • More than the 14 lowest-ranked Oilers combined.
  • Further proof of the poor quality of Tom Gilbert’s hockey sense – we know he can’t be doing it deliberately, because he’s so soft, so he must just be dumb.

In 326 games split over four full NHL seasons and a 12-game call-up in 2006-07, Tom Gilbert has put his body in front of a puck speeding at his own net a grand total of 636 times. Maybe it’s just me, but that kind of consistent, game-in and game-out commitment to sacrificing his body to block shots means that I’d be hesitant to use the word ‘soft’ as my principle standby for describing his play.

Is Gilbert a physical defenceman? No. But words like soft, weak, timid, and afraid are not ones I would use to describe him. I don’t think they fit the available data.

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  • when you cannot play a physical D-game, when it takes 5 min to decide how to clear the zone, when everybody is waiting for you to finally bring the puck to the blue line on PP, when everybody knows you’re going to turn it over if pressured well and when you haven’t got a solid shot, what’s left for you to do in order to look like an NHL D-man: block the puck.
    That’s why Gilbert blocks so many shots: not much else able to do consistently…

    now, Tambo, take all these blocked shots and trade them along with LA’s first and move up!

  • @ dragon:

    Gilbert’s level of ability is another story, although I think you’re somewhere between Shangri La and Atlantis in your assessment of his skills.

    The point here is that ‘soft’ almost certainly isn’t a fair descriptor of Gilbert given his willingness to sacrifice the body.

    • RCN

      now, why do you believe he’s willing to block so many shots, but he would not consider moving a forward away from the front of the net? or maybe separate a winger from the puck?

      is it maybe because he’s too busy chasing said puck as opposed to taking care of forwards…

  • RCN

    Well written Willis… had me giggling.

    I’m thinking that maybe if he cut his hair, “only” made $3M, actually just played 2nd pairing minutes, and dropped the gloves even once in his lifetime (even by accident), then he’d be treated more fairly.

  • kdunbar

    A little “context” perhaps JW?

    Gilbert also leads the league in giveaways by a defenseman with 79. Tied with Luke Schenn.

    Giving away that many pucks might play a role in how many shots you need to block.

    Likely no coincidence that Schenn is also in the top ten shot blockers with only 8 fewer than Gilbert.

  • @ DSF:

    If you’re going to quote giveaways, do me a favour and look at the box score from last night’s game. Feel free to tell everyone how much better the Oilers were than the Red Wings, based on giveaway numbers.

    Players (and teams) who carry and pass the puck a lot rack up giveaways. That doesn’t mean a team should employ 13 J-F Jacques, it means that giveaways need to be treated with great caution.

    And that’s before we get into how individual scorers mark giveaways, which as I’m sure you know ranges from ‘differently’ to ‘scorers in Anaheim are from Mars, scorers in Atlanta are from Venus’ territory.

    Or shall we just chalk you up as a fan of ‘turnover machine’ as an explanation?

  • I’m pretty sure the shot blocking statistician is Tom Gilbert’s mom.

    Seriously though, I’ve noticed his very good shot blocking from time to time. But it’s a shame when a 7 foot tall man chooses to lay it up every time, rather than dunk it.

    Maybe you can add another item to your lists:
    Tom Gilbert blocks a lot of shots because he rarely gets possession back by battling for it.

    Here’s another interesting stat.. Tom Gilbert is 2nd in the league in giveaways (for all players) this year. Last year he was 7th. The year before he was 27th. The year before he was 17th.

    This is the reason people call him “buttery soft”. That’s great that he blocks a lot of shots. I very much respect that, and I think he is quite good at it too. But when you see him panic to get rid of the puck to avoid a hit, that’s when you think he’s soft.

    I love the shot blocking, but he’s nowhere near hungry enough for the puck nor willing to get his nose dirty. That keeps him from getting hurt, but also makes him a fair bit more ineffective in his zone. It makes it more difficult for him to maintain/regain possession and move the puck out efficiently.

    That’s where I’d like to see him improve… get Taylor Hall’s level of determination.

    Edit: I see in my slow typing, DSF beat me to the punch on it. But I do maintain that Gilbert is as good at giving it away as he is at shot blocking, based on observation


      • I definitely agree that there are some stats that can be pretty subjective. I don’t think blocked shots is much different in that regard either.

        Truth be told, I had no intention on using the giveaway stat to back up that Gilbert turns the puck over a lot. It was something I just observe on a fairly regular basis. Out of curiousity, I was going to look up our team giveaways and happened to notice that Gilbert was #2 in the league and went from there.

        I actually have defended Gilbert in the past, and I’m not the type to ‘hate on’ a player, so to speak. I just have a tough time watching Gilbert be our top d-man (mostly by default, unfortunately) when he really struggles like he does in his own zone.

        • SumOil

          He is definitely not a top defenseman, but he is a very good defenseman. JW already showed the giveaway rate of other top defensmen/players in the league.
          But that said, he would be very good in a softer minute role. If the Oilers had a shutdown pair, then Gilbert and Whitney would be an ideal player.
          Another reason i think Gilbert gets so much hate is the emergence of Whitney. However Whitney’s numbers are a mirage, He has a .935 sv% and an in oce sh% of over 12.5. Those are huge. So penciling Whitney as a #1 Dman will also be miscasting him. him and 77 are best suited to softer minutes than ones they have faced this season.

          • As was mentioned above though, the giveaway rate of ‘other top defensemen/players’ is much less of a concern because those guys are contributing to much of their team’s scoring.

            I would also hesitate to call Whitney/Gilbert a shutdown pairing.

            Also I find the sv% stat a strange one for people to use, as Dubnyk or Khabibulin do not make better saves when Whitney is out. You of course are implying, however, that 4 of the 5 skaters on the ice are playing better defensive hockey when Whitney is out there, but tossing out the possibility that Whitney is as large or even larger a factor for that increased sv%.

            One thing we can agree on though is that Gilbert would be very good in a soft minute role. That doesn’t mean shut down role though, but much of the offensive opportunity, pp minutes, etc.. and the occasional defensive zone work.

  • I think it’s funny that nobody mentions where Duncan Keith ranks in giveaways (sixth overall, fourth among defencemen). Or for that matter, Tomas Kaberle, Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers and Mike Green – notice a trend?

    I also think it’s spectacular that nobody has taken the time to compare Ryan Whitney’s give-away totals to those of Tom Gilbert. Because, on a per-game basis, they’re identical.


    • Keith .49 PPG Kaberle .59 PPG Doughty .54 PPG Myers .53 PPG Green .67 PPG Gilbert .43 PPG

      My conclusion is that Gilbert gives the puck away as often as some very good offensive defensemen but that he doesn’t produce as much offense to offset his mistakes as they do.

      • Kodiak

        Of course Gilbert has the offensive cast around him that those other guys do to, so it’s such an even and valid comparison.

        Cogliano, Gagner, Brule, all small guys who don’t know what a backcheck is, and then a bunch of rookies. Yeah, we should be scoring way more with those guys and it also is unfathomable that we end up hemmed in our own end with these guys on the ice. I’m sure Gilbert throwing a couple more hits a game would fix that right up. Damn you and your brutally soft play Gilbert. You are killing this team.

          • Kodiak

            Gagner is so good at back checking he leads the team in scoring and is a -17. My point is our forwards are mostly small, soft and young. As a group we are not very good at supporting our D, clearing the zone effectively or having decent zone coverage. This puts a lot more pressure on the D. That leads to turnovers and a lack of offensive pressure.

            Every Dman Gilbert is being compared to has a lot more experienced, bigger, more skilled team in front of them. I bet Lidstrom would have half the points he does and be -10 on this sad sack team.

  • The list of top 20 giveaway players on defense this season also includes:


    Edit: Bah – Willis beat me to it…that’s what I get for not refreshing the screen before I comment

  • Last season’s top-five forwards, ranked by giveaways:

    1. Joe Thornton, 88

    T2. Sidney Crosby, 77

    T2. John Tavares, 77

    4. Alex Ovechkin, 76

    T5. Pavel Datsyuk, 73

    Gosh, it would be nice if those five players weren’t such turnover machines. I mean, maybe one or two of them would pick up an award or something, although I suppose it’s too much to hope that any of them could transform into a Selke winner.

      • Bucknuck

        Yeah, he did.

        But he also led the league in a few other categories.

        Gilbert….not so much.

        Gilbert is 119th in the league for hits by a defenseman. So, on average, every team has 3 players who deliver more hits than Gilbert.

        That’s why he considered “soft”

        Trying to pump Gilbert’s tires because he blocks a lot of shots just doesn’t wash.

        And, yeah, we all know the “hits” “giveaways” and “blocked shots” stats are subjective and vary from rink to rink but over nearly a full season there is a smoothing effect.

        But you can’t use one subjective stat to make a point and toss out the others.

        • Bucknuck

          How the hell is blocked shots a subjective stat? It isn’t open to interpretation? If there is a shot fired on net and Gilbert gets in the way… it’s blocked.

          It takes courage to block a shot, and Gilbert blocks a lot so he has courage.

          The subjective part comes in when interpreting what soft means. If it means lacking courage then it doesn’t apply to Gilbert.

    • SumOil

      Couple of Points:

      1. If Gilbert could rack up some comparable points like the NHL-ers in this list (say 45+ pts as a dman)then maybe he too would be forgiven and not so “buttery”.

      2. At 6’4″ I don’t wish that he layed more guys out with the big hit but that he would show a bit more tenacity and close in on the angle and “take the puck” ala a Lidstrom-like dman ratherthan hang back. Again plays soft + buttery at the wrong times.

    • I can’t even count how many times I’ve brought this up in regards to Hemsky as well. Turnovers are more likely to indicate how important you are to a team in terms of being a puck carrier than it is to indicate how poor/good you are at keeping the puck.

      Gilbert is frustrating but if the team ever finds a way to move him down the depth chart he should bounce back. I had such high hopes for him after his rookie year, it’s a shame he’s disappointed.

  • JW: That would be fantastic if Gilbert was giving the puck away and contributing to a large amount of the team’s offense but he’s not. His first two years here, I really liked him because he seemed a lot more effective in the offensive zone.

    In Whitney’s case (and Doughty’s, and several of the other D men metioned), at least they are putting up offensive numbers and making up for any defensive short comings with offensive prowess.

    • The point is that the turnovers are a result of carrying the puck a lot. He has been forced into the role of those players in terms of handling the puck, whether he can manage it or not. I cannot see how this is his fault.

      • It’s too bad that the NHL doesn’t measure (or at least let you query) where the turnovers occur. I think in the cases of the high-end offensive d-men (your Greens, Doughty’s, etc) and offensive forwards.. yes… much of the turnovers occur in the offensive and late neutral zone, and you can’t fault a guy as much for those.

        This is completely subjective, I concede, but I don’t think Gilbert has carried the puck into the zone as much as he once was (in his first year in particular). I also still think he’s an excellent puck mover when not pressured… one of the best at that craft. I do think (and again, conceding that this is subjective) that he’s shown an increase in defensive zone turnovers in the last couple of years.

        Anyone know if that stat exists out there?

        I should stress that I’m not a guy that hates Gilbert. I just think that his strengths are his passing, and to an extent shot blocking.. but they don’t make up for his current weaknesses (being unwilling to take a hit to ensure possession is maintained, getting caught running around in his own zone, weakness in front of the net, etc..). I think his weaknesses are being more amplified due to him not performing to his strengths like he used to. I also have suspected that he could be much more effective if his minutes were decreased (i.e. 2nd pairing d-man) and if he were paired with a grittier d-man who’s more willing to do the things that Gilbert seems unable to do.

  • Chris.

    A team should function like a well oiled machine… not all the parts are going to be the same. Gilbert is simply not cut from the same cloth as Teddy peckman…So what? Right now, Gilbert is our absolute best available defenceman and I believe he could serve a useful role on a contender.

  • Basically to sum up… here’s the problem as I’ve seen it: Gilbert is being used as a jack-of-all trades (including ‘shutdown’ role) d-man when really he excels at one end of the rink only. That definitely isn’t entirely his fault, but more a default role he’s been forced to take because of injuries… and perhaps somewhat because of unrealistic expectations forced on him due to a bad contract.

  • SumOil

    Defencemen who are counted on to move the puck are always going to be high in turnovers.
    In some ways they are comparible to basketball pointguards who turnover the ball a lot.Just check Steve Nashs turnovers which are near NBA high.
    The oiler fans like there defenceman to eat raw meat and as they perceive Tom as soft they look for imaginary flaws

  • Oh, one last thing.. Whitney, while racking up lots of assists early on, looked equally horrible in the early going of the season, and I called him on that. So those that are using Whitney’s shortcomings as defense of Gilbert’s.. I don’t think that is a very good defense at all.

    Eventually something clicked in Whitney though, and he became our best defenseman overall. I honestly think it was when Gilbert and he were split up. I’m not blaming that on Gilbert though. I found that to be odd, to be honest, because those guys were great together at the end of the previous year. But for whatever reason, that pairing stopped clicking.

  • @ DSF:

    The question is: if Gilbert lacks physical courage – which is generally what people are getting at when they call him soft – why does he block shots, an act that requires physical courage.

    My conclusion is that Gilbert doesn’t lack physical courage, he lacks a mean streak. Those two things are very different.

    • SumOil

      I expect if he threw a body check once in a while he wouldn’t have that label.

      But he doesn’t.

      I wouldn’t call Foster tough and he’s recorded 79 hits to Gilbert’s 58.

      You don’t need a mean streak to throw a hit…you just need the desire to separate the puck carrier from the puck.

    • It might be fair to consider that the amount of minutes Tom is playing factors into how physical he can allow himself to be. It takes a ton of energy to play hard (to hit and be hit). Being as smart as he is, I’d bet he’s pacing himself to manage the minutes. You may very well see a far more physical Gilbert if he was playing 17 minutes a game instead of the 27 or so he’s tasked with.

  • SumOil

    @ Racki..
    the sv% is mostly luck based.
    Whitney on ice sv% is .935 and for gilberts its close to 0.870. Its just that they are unlucky.
    This happened to horcoff last season. and is one of the major factors that affects the goals against and +/-

    If you have faith in David Staples stats, he found that goalies made more mistakes with gilbert on ice than average. So he has been unlucky

  • Ender

    Since the statistics and conclusions seem to have been beaten to death already, I will simply extend some props to Willis for his writing style today. Way to go, JW; who’d ‘a thunk you were a closet funny-man? Keep it coming.

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    My suspicion is that if we tallied up the number of times each of those defenceman carried the puck out of their own end or made that first pass, Gilbert would be right up near the top of the list thanks to the minutes he’s playing and who he has been partnered with, and that’s the reason for the number of giveaways. Many passes = many giveaways, and there’s too much noise for giveaways to mean anything as a result.

    As for his offence, I agree with you, but I’d argue that Gilbert’s usage this season (i.e. in way over his head as the #1 shutdown option on a bad team, generally with either an inexperienced or even less qualified partner) is impacting his production in a major way.

    In any case, I wasn’t really trying to compare Gilbert to a guy like Duncan Keith; I was simply trying to point out that a raw giveaway number is essentially meaningless.

  • Kodiak

    So Green passes to OvenChicken and Backstrom, Keith and Seabrook to Toews, Kane, Sharp, Doughty to Kopitar, Smyth and Williams. Gilbert passes Horcoff, Cogliano and a bunch of rookies. Of course they are a bigger part of their teams scoring, because their teams actually have scoring. I’m sure most of our lack of scoring is Gilberts fault though.

    Gilbert is not physical. So what. Out of the top 50 in defensive scoring (Gilbert is 51st) there are maybe 15 that play a real physical game. Our team is the worst team in the league and Gilbert has put up more points than 10 top pairing Dmen in the league.

    Gilbert is not Weber, Burns, or Seabrook and he never will be. Get over it. It doesn’t mean he isn’t effective and earning his paycheck.