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.