clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tom Gilbert: at the scene of the crime

Montreal's veteran defenseman is often unfairly pegged as the "fall guy," but he's not playing guilt-free hockey either.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Montreal's number 77 is a hard player to evaluate objectively.

In the first half of his career (the non-playoff years with the Oilers and leading up to his buy-out from the Minnesota Wild), Gilbert was relied upon to carry the flag on teams which were not very deep, or very good.

He outperformed expectations in tough minutes but was never interested in hitting everything that moves and didn't put a ton of points on the board. Because of that, mainstream media and the average fan rode him hard, which was unfair. He was just a victim of his circumstances.

In his second act in the NHL, however, he has found himself in much more favorable surroundings, while the public perception of the finesse-oriented, puck-moving defenseman has drastically shifted.

In Florida on a one-year contract during the 2013-14 season, Gilbert tore it up on the first pairing with savvy Brian Campbell, who has been known to inflate the possession statistics of almost every single player he's partnered with over the years.

The following summer, the NHL brass' increased emphasis on possession skills led to the 31 year-old UFA being offered a two-year, $5.6 million contract by the Habs.

When Gilbert signed on the dotted line, the knowledgeable fan had good reasons to be optimistic. Here is an experienced player with a long history of driving play who can be expected to slot in right behind Subban and Markov on the Habs' depth chart.

But exactly 80 games into his career as a Hab, the numbers which were so kind to Gilbert in his stint as an Oiler, Wild and Panther have kind of turned on him.

In the 2014-15 regular season, Gilbert posted a fairly terrible 45.7% Corsi rating at 5vs5, in the same neighborhood as noted sinkhole Alexei Emelin (45.7%) and aging veterans Sergei Gonchar (46.1%) and Mike Weaver (45.5%).

And there's something not quite right in that, considering that in the four years before the Minnesotan landed in Montreal, he would have been a legitimate top-pair defenseman on most NHL teams (credit to Progressive Hockey's nifty Graph Creator).

A few takeaways from this graph:

Dion Phaneuf would probably be a good #3-4 defenseman on a contending team, instead of being the butt of all jokes as a #1 on the Leafs.

Jack Johnson and Alexei Emelin have not done well, and don't have the excuse of old age like Gonchar and Weaver.

Between 2010 and 2014, Gilbert was almost elite at driving the play while playing decently tough minutes. He was not as strong as P.K. Subban in terms of puck possession but, then again, not many players are.

When I ask myself "what's wrong with Steven Stamkos" and examine the game tape, the answer becomes obvious: he's still the same scorer with the elite finishing skills, temporarily playing in a structure that doesn't maximize his gifts.

But when I wonder the same thing about Tom Gilbert, I end up with more questions than answers.

Is he playing in a system which doesn't cater to his strength?

Is he playing with partners who expose his weaknesses?

At 32 years of age, is he declining as an athlete?

Does he have some sort of nagging injury which has been hindering his effectiveness?

Is he having personal problems which cause his mind not to be in the right place when he steps on the ice?

All of these factors can make a sizable difference in a player's output, but the only evidence we have is the game tape, so let's take a look at that.

Focus 1: Tom Gilbert's D-zone play in Game 1

The Habs lost 2-1 and Gilbert was on the ice for both goals.

Here's the first one:

The Habs have just killed off a penalty and have three defenseman on the ice (Subban, Gilbert and Emelin). Not ideal.

But block that out for a second and focus on Gilbert's netfront battle with Tyler Johnson. He tries to keep Johnson at bay while maintaining sight of the puck, but the Tampa forward jumps in front of him at the very last second and tips the Matt Carle point shot past Price.

And here's the overtime winner:

Gilbert's partner Greg Pateryn has a chance to clear, but has the puck stolen off his stick. Wingers Jacob De La Rose and Devante Smith-Pelley are caught flat-footed, while centerman Torrey Mitchell is still in the corner after helping win the puck battle to Pateryn.

Not much Gilbert can do there, except take a step out and hope that he can tip the shot away from his net. But he doesn't quite get there, and Nikita Kucherov's cut-and-shoot fools Price.

Even with the benefit of hindsight and after re-watching each clip a dozen times, it's hard to assign definitive blame on Gilbert on the goals.

Perhaps he could have done a better job fronting Johnson and tying up his stick on Goal 1, and perhaps he should have been out to challenge Kucherov a little bit quicker on Goal 2. But those are both split-second plays coming off failed zone exits (Emelin probably could have gotten a touch on the puck instead of letting it go to Carle at the point on the first goal, and Pateryn made the turnover on the second goal); automatic fire drills against a speedy and offensively inclined teams such as Tampa.

Focus 2: Quick feet on the controlled zone exit

When I watch Gilbert play this season, I often make a note of how he tries to do too much with his passing and not enough with his skating.

He's known for having a great feel for the game and can move the puck tape-to-tape with the best of them. But I get the feeling he could make life for his teammates a whole lot easier if he simply moved his feet with a bit more enthusiasm.

Example 1 (Bad)

The Habs have just recovered the puck. The backchecking forward throws it over to Gilbert, who is now set to start the breakout.

But instead of moving the puck up the ice right away, Gilbert takes the puck and starts heading toward his own goal line.

What is even more puzzling, and alarming, is that he does not pick up his feet one single time between the defensive blue line and the faceoff dot, allowing the Tampa forechecker to quickly close in on him.

Now, he's running out of time, space and options. The Montreal forwards are way out of the picture, and the only way Gilbert can relieve the pressure is to bump it off the end boards to Pateryn on the other side (red arrow).

Perhaps Gilbert is trying to make the clever play and suck in a forechecker before sending his team off to the race going the other way, but his gamble doesn't pay off here.

What P.K. Subban or Jeff Petry might have done instead is to haul a** around the back of the net in full control of the puck, find the middle of the ice (the green box) and make his first pass from there. Instead, Gilbert is still gliding.

Gilbert makes the indirect pass to Pateryn, who is now backed into the corner with two Tampa forecheckers closing in with speed. If Pateryn tries to force the puck to the middle of the ice from that spot, he's risking an immediate turnover in the slot area.

So Pateryn goes for the "safe" play and flips it out of the zone, wasting a Montreal possession. Tampa's fourth line comes right back, hems the Canadiens in their zone for 20 seconds, and generates a scoring chance.

It's innocuous plays like these that destroy a team's Corsi rating.

The more I re-watch this play, the more disappointed I feel, because Tom Gilbert is a good player; he should know better.

When he got the puck, he had plenty of time, room and support to work with. But he didn't take advantage of that and ended up putting his rookie teammate in a position where it was impossible to succeed.

It's not a quality teaching moment unless you show a few examples of what a player does well, so now let's look at two plays where Gilbert nails it:

Example 2 (Good)

Number 77 is on for a defensive zone draw with the Pacioretty-Plekanec-Gallagher line. Plekanec wins the faceoff and Gilbert is about to recover the puck with J.T. Brown (TBL23) in pursuit.

Gilbert tricks Brown into thinking he'll go behind the net, and pulls off a Bobby Orr escape move the other way to throw the forechecker off his trail. Nice.

As a third-pairing defender, you're expected to dominate, if not at least keep pace with, the other team's bottom-six forwards.

Gilbert actually hesitates here, and was considering shooting the puck off the boards toward Pacioretty at the red line, but he musters up enough confidence to hold onto the puck. Once he gets going, Brown can't really catch up to him.

With a full head of steam, Gilbert single-handedly creates both the controlled zone exit and the controlled zone entry into the Tampa end.

The Habs gain about 15 seconds of zone time and two shot attempts.

Example 3 (Good)

Tampa carries the puck into the Montreal end but gets bogged down behind Price's net. Gilbert has the puck in his feet and kicks it up to Galchenyuk, who tries to flip the puck out of the zone.

Galchenyuk's attempted clear is stopped at the line by Andrej Sustr, but the puck bounces back to him. Now he spots Gilbert in the middle of the ice, and the Habs are ready to roll.

Gilbert has control, he has speed, and he beats Filppula clean.

Now he has a ton of space to work with in the middle of the ice.

He takes what is given to him, carries all the way to the Tampa blue line, and dishes off to Desharnais for the controlled entry. Easy peasy.

All things considered, despite what his recent numbers might look like, Tom Gilbert still has the chops to be the best third-pairing defenseman still alive in the NHL playoffs.

He has the feet, the hands and the hockey IQ to dominate Tampa's bottom six. All he needs to do is to trust his abilities and put his talents to good use.

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.