Having read through the comments in the Tom Gilbert scoring chances post from yesterday I feel that I need to get something out of the way before I get started with this post just so that we're all on the same page going forward - Tom Gilbert is a damn good defenceman. If you don't agree with that assessment you might just want to consider reading something else because in all likelihood you won't enjoy reading this.
This season was yet another successful season in the evolution of Gilbert on the Oilers blue line. At 28 years old Gilbert has already played four full seasons in the NHL, totaling 337 games. Ryan Whitney is right now, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, the best defenceman on the team but Gilbert has shown that he can without a doubt hold his own out there and is an adequate fill in for the top pair should Whitney be sidelined with an injury.
Aside from an ugly stretch where Gilbert was paired alongside Jason Strudwick, Gilbert was one of the better Oiler defencemen night after night playing tough minutes and coming out on the good side more often than not. This season saw Gilbert's point production drop to 26 points, down from 31 the season before, and his career high 45 in 2008/09. At the same time Gilbert set a personal low this season in terms of plus/minus with a -14, better than only Jim Vandermeer and Strudwick. Like his points, Gilbert's plus/minus has fallen year over year as well. In 2008/09 he recorded a +6, last year that dropped to -10, and this season it dropped again. So if his production is dropping and his plus/minus is getting worse how can I say that Gilbert is a good defenceman?
Well the plus/minus can be explained, at least partly, by looking at on-ice save percentages. Over the last three seasons Oiler goalies have gotten worse when Gilbert is in front of them; 0.913 to 0.909, to 0.889 this season. That on-ice save percentage isn't just low, it's terrible. Only Jeff Petry endured a worse save rate among Oiler defenders and there were only eight such numbers lower than Gilbert's in the entire NHL this season. If the goalie doesn't stop the puck at even strength there isn't much a player can do about that other than watch his plus/minus fall.
What about the points, those have been on the decline as well. Yes they have but while his points have been declining his minutes have been increasing. This season Gilbert lead the Oilers in total time on ice by a significant margin and his average of 24:30 per game is more than two minutes higher than his average last season. Those extra minutes aren't exactly the easiest available either; this season Gilbert's ice time again ranked as the toughest among the Oiler defenders. If the Oilers could cut his ice back to 22 minutes a night and give the responsibility of playing against the other teams best players I'm sure Gilbert would take more chances and his points would likewise increase but that just isn't an option right now. Considering the circumstances it's hardly surprising that Gilbert has seen a drop off in his point production.
Looking at Derek's post breaking down the Gilbert related scoring chances you can see that despite the tough minutes and reduced points Gilbert is still moving the puck in the right direction. Individually, Gilbert bettered the Oilers season average in every segment of the season that he wasn't paired with Strudwick. Looking at the numbers segment by segment he was below the team only two times; one of those times he posted a chance percentage of 51.8% (not exactly a terrible number), the other was Strudwick related. Individually the majority of Oilers were better with Gilbert on the ice with them than they were with him sitting on the bench.
So how is it that Gilbert is not unanimously loved by all Oiler fans? Look no further than hits. Listed at 6'3" 206lbs fans in Edmonton expect him to be physical. That physical play isn't part of his game doesn't matter. He's big, therefore, he should be physical. And if he's not going to play physical then we all know that Gilbert simply isn't tough enough to play effectively in the NHL.
But are hits really the best way to measure the effectiveness of a defenceman? Dion Phaneuf throws some big time hits and I'd rather have Gilbert on my team any day of the week. Nicklas Lidstrom is arguably the best defenceman we've seen in the last 20 years and he almost never hits. In the six post lockout seasons Lidstrom has 223 hits in 480 games, thats an average of 0.46 hits/game. That Lidstrom doesn't bang everything that moves could be a major reason why he is still as good as he is at the not so young age of 41. Is it unreasonable to think that a factor in Gilbert having missed just three games in his career is that he doesn't wear his body down throwing hits?
The hit totals aren't big but what is often overlooked is that Gilbert's season totals have increased every year he's been in the league. That leads me to conclude that Gilbert only throws a hit if it won't take him out of position and as he has becomes more comfortable with the speed of the NHL game he has taken the opportunity to throw more hits. I think he will continue to hit more but he'll never be Theo Peckham and that's just fine by me.
Focusing on hits as a measure of toughness also marginalizes what it takes to stand in front of an NHL caliber slap shot. I wouldn't do it I can guarantee you that. The most important thing about blocking a shot is that it means that the defenceman is in the shooting lane where he belongs, making it tough to score; in other words he's doing his job properly. And Gilbert is a shot blocking machine. In the NHL this season he ranked 11th overall and lead the Oilers for the second straight season. The only times Gilbert hasn't lead the Oilers in blocked shots he trailed just Steve Staios. How many fans ever questioned Staois' toughness?
To me it's clear that Tom Gilbert is already a very good defenceman for the Oilers and is only going to get better in the coming years. With a cap hit of $4M for three more seasons the Oilers have a key piece of their defense corps locked up at a reasonable price just as he's hitting his prime. I don't understand why some fans want to focus on what he doesn't do when there are some many things he does very well. Whether you want to belive it or not, Gilbert is a hell of a defenceman.
Prediction: With Whitney back in the lineup Gilbert's ice time should be cut back slightly. I think he'll average just over 23 minutes in the upcoming season. I'll go out on a limb and say the power play will be better - could it really be worse - and as a result Gilbert will see his points increase slightly, 5 goals and 25 assists for 30 points. He'll also average a hit per game and block more than two shots a night and somehow still be considered soft by some.