Nov 22, 2013; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Florida Panthers defenseman Tom Gilbert (77) skates against the Calgary Flames during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Underrated Excellence Of Tom Gilbert

The Florida Panthers made big waves in the hockey world on September 16, 2013. That was the date when the team offered veteran goaltender Tim Thomas a PTO (professional try-out). Lost in the madness of that news was the fact that Thomas’ was not the PTO handed out that day. September 16, was also the date that the Panthers offered a PTO to then 30-year-old defenseman Tom Gilbert. At the time, the Gilbert addition got a lot less coverage than the addition of Thomas in net but over the course of the season, Gilbert has proved to be just as valuable an asset.

Before I get into a discussion of just how valuable Tom Gilbert has been this season let’s first take a look back at his career and and how he ended up with the Florida Panthers.

Tom Gilbert Career Arc

Tom Gilbert grew up and played his high-school hockey in Minnesota. After high school he played Junior puck for the Chicago Steel of the USHL. During the 2001-02 season at age 19, Gilbert earned USHL all-star honors and tallied 28 points in 57 games (13-15-28). Following that strong showing in the USHL, Gilbert was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the 4th round (129th overall) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

Gilbert went on to play four seasons for the University of Wisconsin from 02-06. In his senior year, Gilbert scored the winning goal in the NCAA Championship game against Boston College. (Aside: Wisconsin won the game 2-1. Brian Elliot was the winning goalie stopping 22 shots while Cory Schneider made 37 saves in the loss for BC.)

In 2004, while Gilbert was still in school, he was traded from Colorado to Edmonton. The Avalanche received aging goalie Tommy Salo and an 05′ 6th round draft pick in the deal.

Gilbert made his NHL debut with the Edmonton Oilers on January 10, 2007 (his 24th birthday). He played 12 games for the Oilers during the 06-07 season but it was not until his rookie year of 07-08 that he truly broke onto the scene.

Tom Gilbert Career Stats

Team Year GP G A P P/G
Edmonton 2006-07 12 1 5 6 0.50
Edmonton 2007-08 82 13 20 33 0.40
Edmonton 2008-09 82 5 40 45 0.55
Edmonton 2009-10 82 5 26 31 0.38
Edmonton 2010-11 79 6 20 26 0.33
Edm/Min 2011-12 67 3 19 22 0.33
Minnesota 2012-13 43 3 10 13 0.30
Florida 2013-14 44 2 15 17 0.39

In his rookie season of 2007-08 Tom Gilbert played in all 82 games for the Oilers and scored 13 goals setting an Oilers’ franchise record for most goals scored by a rookie. His strong rookie year paid off when the Oilers gave him a six-year $24 million contract during the offseason. Gilbert remained with the Oilers for the next three seasons putting up consistent yet slightly declining numbers.

Gilbert’s time with the Oilers came to an end when he was part of a trade-deadline deal with the Minnesota Wild on February 27, 2012. In exchange for Gilbert, the Wild shipped Justin Schultz  to Edmonton. Gilbert tallied five assists 20 games with Minnesota following the trade while averaging 27:01 of ice time per game. Following the 12-13 lockout Gilbert played in 43 games for the Wild but saw his playing time drop to 19:19 per game.

Following the 12-13 season, the cap-strapped Wild used one of their compliance buyouts on Tom Gilbert thus making him an unrestricted free agent. Gilbert had two more years on his contract with a yearly cap hit of $4 million. In a slow market for mid-level veteran free agents, Gilbert was unable to find a suitable offer during the summer which resulted in his accepting a PTO with the Panthers as training camps got underway in September. On September 28, the Panthers signed Gilbert to a one year deal worth $900,000.

Gilbert’s Underrated Excellence

At the time of his signing, not too many Panther fans knew too much about Tom Gilbert (myself included). Honestly, I had no idea what we could expect from Gilbert this season. I remember having a mixed reaction to the news of the signing, thinking that Gilbert would just be a veteran place holder keeping the seat warm for the young Panthers on the way.

Boy was I ever wrong.

Gilbert currently has 17 points in 44 games this season good for 6th on the team. He has been the teams second most productive defenseman behind only Brian Campbell (19 points). His 15 assists place him in a tie with Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Fleischmann for most on the team. Not bad for a guy that wasn’t even in the picture at the start of training camp.

Gilbert’s strong first half has been supported by some of the more important advanced stats. Gilbert is second on the Panthers in CF% at 53.1% behind only Campbell who is at 53.3%. (Advanced stats are taken from extraskater.com) What that means is, out of all the shots that have happened with Gilbert on the ice (in 5 on 5 situations), 53.1% of the time the shots have come from the Panthers or simply put, when Gilbert is on the ice, the Panthers control the puck more than their opponents.

Gilbert is second only to Campbell in average time on ice. He averages 21:02 per game and he plays in all three phases of the game. He is on the ice 35.6% of the time when the Panthers are at even strength (2nd on team), 34.8% of the time when the Panthers are on a power play (7th) and 19.9% of the time when the Panthers are shorthanded (9th).

Simply put, Gilbert is the type of guy that can be relied on in all situations. He produces on the offensive end of the ice and he has strong possession numbers which elucidate his defensive prowess.

The eye test bears all this out as well. What sticks out to me when I watch Gilbert is how rarely he sticks out on the defensive end of the ice, and I mean that as a good thing. When it comes to defense there are usually only two times a players specially stands out; if he is making an amazing goal saving play or if he is making a ghastly error usually resulting in a goal. A lot of the time those spectacular defensive plays are a result of either luck (being in the right place at the right time) or something I like to call a Curious George play.

As a young kid I never understood why at the end of each Curious George book everybody is praising George for saving the day when in reality all he did was save his a** after screwing things up in the first place. A lot of times in hockey, the reason you have the opportunity to make a goal-saving defensive play is because on just you made a boneheaded turnover on the previous play. Thus, a Curious George play.

So when I say Tom Gilbert does not stick out on defense I mean that he usually makes the right plays. He does not have a lot of Curious George plays because he does not make a lot of vomit-inducing defensive errors. That also does not mean that Gilbert won’t or can’t make the high degree of difficulty passes that often lead to offensive opportunities on the other end of the ice. He can certainly make those plays but he has a good sense of when a pass is a good-risk or when a pass is a bad-risk.

It is weird to think back to the summer and the weeks leading up to Panthers training camp when I spent so much time projecting lineups and predicting who will be involved in this year’s team. A guy like Tom Gilbert was nonexistent on the radar. Now, halfway through the season he is one of the best defensemen on the Panthers, on both ends of the ice. His quiet game does not get a lot of shine so it is definitely worth taking a moment to appreciate the excellence of Tom Gilbert.

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