We are now seven games into the season, and one nagging argument will not go away. Many people in the Canadiens media as well as the fan base have been criticizing defenseman Tom Gilbert for not playing as physically as they would like. He doesn't register a lot of hits, and doesn't block as many shots they think he should.
It's true that he's not a very physical player, but the idea that this makes him a bad defenseman or a bad signing is ridiculous.
Back when Tom Gilbert was still in Florida, Tyler Dellow wrote a piece for Sportsnet on Tom Gilbert's Corsi% (over his NHL career) and how it predicted that Gilbert would do well on the Panthers. The piece is here and is a must-read if you want to understand Gilbert's true value to a team. Gilbert's Corsi% and WOWY stats are clearly broken down and the conclusion (in the simplest of terms) is that his teams, for the most part, have done significantly better with him on the ice than with him off of it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't seem to care about his actual play.
"But he doesn't hit."
People seem to have forgotten that if you're registering a lot of hits, it means you do not have possession of the puck. They are also forgetting that if you are blocking a lot of shots, it means you do not have possession of the puck.
This is true if you believe in advanced stats. This is true if you believe in plus/minus. This is true if you believe in the eye test. This is true if you believe in smoke signals. This is true if you think hits are an important measure of a player's worth. This is true if you think hits are overrated. This is true if you think hits are completely insignificant. This is true if you've played hockey. This is true if you haven't played hockey.
When Tom Gilbert is on the ice, the Habs are more likely to have possession of the puck. Is it not possible, then, that the team as a whole doing better with him on the ice means that there is no need for Tom Gilbert to be dishing out thundering hits? Unless he is a complete moron or on a mission to injure a particular player, why would he hit a guy who doesn't need to be separated from the puck?
In fact, (and unfortunately there are no statistics to measure how often this happened unless someone wants to re-watch every game from last season and get back to me), there were many specific instances last season where Douglas Murray went to land big hits, took himself out of position thereby abandoning his assignment, and caused goals against the Habs. While it's unfair to characterize his entire season this way, the fact that he did it at all shows how skewed our perceptions of what a good defenseman should play like are. Murray often did the exact thing Gilbert is now being criticized for not doing, and it often ended badly for his team.
As Cara T summarizes in her excellent fan post, Gilbert's addition to the Canadiens brings more balance to the defensive corps in such a way that any pairing the Habs ice has the ability to get and keep the puck out of their own zone. Also, no pairing is an abject defensive disaster, which was often the case back when they played more physical defensemen such as Francis Boullion or Douglas Murray on certain pairings.
Tom Gilbert will never be the player that those particular critics want him to be, but he is the exact kind of player the Habs need in that position.