When the Edmonton Oilers acquired Tom Gilbert from the Colorado Avalanche in 2004 for a sixth round pick and Tommy Salo, it was thought to perhaps be a steal of a deal. Gilbert was an unknown commodity and still playing university hockey in the USA. He arrived in Edmonton fulltime for the 2007-2008 season and when his successful rookie campaign was followed up with an even better season, that steal of a deal back on March 8th, 2004 was looking like it could turn out to be highway robbery!!!
Fast forward to the start of the upcoming 2011-2012 season and one finds that Tom Gilbert has not taken that next step in his development and at times seems to have regressed. Much of the blame for his poor play lands on Gilbert himself but some of it is on the organization. The combination of injuries on the blueline and lack of overall talent put the last two coaching staffs in a tough spot. Not only did they have Gilbert on the ice for far too many minutes on a nightly basis but they compounded the problem by playing him in situations that do not suit his skill set. Outside of the move that brought in Ryan Whitney, which cost them Lubomir Visnovsky, nothing substantial was done to improve the Oilers top six. With that being the case, Gilbert was forced to play in all situations and when Whitney went down with a season ending injury on December 28th things got even worse. Tom Gilbert became the Oilers number one defenceman and, to his credit, his play improved as the season progressed but it was nowhere near the level it had to be. He continued eating the minutes the coaching staff needed him to and he, and the club as a whole, looked utterly overmatched on many nights. Gilbert is not a top pairing guy to this point in his NHL career but he is unquestionably a solid choice to be on the second pairing on most NHL clubs. The additions of Cam Barker and Andy Sutton this off season should see plenty of pressure taken off of Gilbert’s shoulders. Being taken out of the spotlight may be just what he needs to try and to find the game he had during his first two seasons in Edmonton.
Look for Gilbert to be paired with Ladislav Smid to start the 2011-2012 campaign in hopes they can continue to develop the chemistry the pair showed down the stretch last season. Being put in proper roles as second pairing defencemen, the two should no longer seem to be in over their heads. While, Gilbert will never be mistaken for a physical player he does seem to have the uncanny ability to block shots. While he isn’t your proto-typical drop and sacrifice the body type of shot blocker, ala Jason Smith, he still manages to get the job done. He ended up 11th in the league for blocked shots with 172 and was only ten shy of being number five overall. This is one area that even with his recent struggles, Gilbert has been able to improve on year to year.
The one aspect of his game that has never been questioned is his ability to move the puck. This club went from a team filled with puck movers on the backend that, at times, had only Gilbert as the sole true puckmover. While adding Barker and having a healthy Ryan Whitney will help immensely, one could argue that Gilbert is the best of the bunch. While his stretch pass is second to only Whitney on the club, the easy at which he can skate the puck out of his own end is unmatched by any other Oiler blueliner. If he would only show the same confidence in his shot as he has in his ability to move the puck, he would gain himself a few extra feet of space in the offensive zone. He scored 13 goals in his rookie season but only 5 or 6 in every season since. While I don’t expect him to be a 15 goal player every season, with his shot it’s not much to ask for him to consistently push the 10 goal mark. By doing this, he would add a dimension to the power play that is missing whenever Gilbert is on the ice. Teams know he will not shot so they can either pressure the point or lay back, whichever works best for the situation at hand, as they know a shot won’t be coming. It is an area in Gilbert’s game that must change and quickly.
Unfortunately, the plan to go with a full out rebuild in Edmonton has brought to light limitations in Gilbert’s game. As this club starts to take that first step towards becoming an elite franchise, Tom Gilbert will have the chance to show Oiler fans what he is truly capable of...and it will be up to him to make sure that deal back in 2004 does indeed end up being highway robbery for the Oilers.
2011-2012 Prediction: 5 G - 27 A - 32 Pts