EDMONTON – Given his own struggles during a season that’s been full of them for the Edmonton Oilers, Tom Gilbert didn’t seem a likely candidate to rediscover his game.
But that’s exactly what he’s done.
Not only is Gilbert playing his best hockey of the season, he’s doing it on a blue-line thinned by the trades of Lubomir Visnovsky, Steve Staios and Denis Grebeshkov and season-ending injuries to Sheldon Souray and Ladislav Smid.
With two assists in a 5-4 overtime win over Colorado in Wednesday’s home finale, Gilbert has 12 points in his last nine games. He had just 15 in his first 71 games.
With almost everybody else gone, Gilbert is back.
Being paired with trade deadline acquisition Ryan Whitney has helped.
“I’ve been finding the right spots at the right time,” Gilbert said. “I’m making more plays with the puck, which is a big difference from when I was struggling earlier on. I wasn’t making that first pass in the defensive zone.
“That’s where it all starts, in the defensive zone, making that first pass. Plus, I’ve got Whitney, who can make that first outlet pass, too. He creates open ice for me. That allows me to jump up in the play.”
After amassing 45 points in 2008-09, there were high expectations for the 27-year-old Gilbert this season. But he managed just two points, both assists, in his first 16 games.
Then Souray was lost for the season with a broken hand and Smid went down with a neck injury requiring surgery. At the trade deadline, Grebeshkov was dealt to Nashville and Visnovsky was sent to Anaheim for Whitney.
Gilbert had just two goals and 10 assists when Whitney arrived. But as the 30th-place Oilers close out the season this weekend with games against Los Angeles and Anaheim, Gilbert has four goals and 23 assists.
“We’ve stepped right into it,” Gilbert said of pairing with Whitney. “We’ve been great complements for each other.
“He likes to jump up in the play. He reads the ice really well. When one guy is going, one guy is back. We read off each other really well.”
Gilbert and Whitney have been logging first-pairing minutes for coach Pat Quinn for the last month on a patchwork defence that includes AHL call-up Dean Arsene, rookie Taylor Chorney, Aaron Johnson, acquired from Calgary in the Staios trade, and journeyman Jason Strudwick.
“I think what’s helped Tom is our circumstances as much as anything,” said associate coach Tom Renney. “I think Ryan has been huge for him, for sure. I think the trade deadline helped. Us knowing where we are and being able to just go play has helped Tom.”
While Gilbert and Whitney look capable of being Quinn’s top defensive pairing for the rebuilding Oilers going into next season, Renney has liked what he’s seen, but he isn’t jumping to that conclusion just yet.
“We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out over the long run,” Renney said. “They seem to complement each other. They really have, instinctively, been able to connect.
“The dynamic of our back end is pretty unique in that we’ve got call-up kids playing. I don’t know if it’s symbolic of an NHL six. Certainly, Tom and Ryan look like a number one pair today. How that manifests itself in September remains to be seen, but they’re making a real encouraging statement for themselves.”
For Gilbert, his late surge provides something of a silver lining going into the off-season after a campaign in which the Oilers have missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
“It’s definitely a nice way to finish,” Gilbert said. “It was a pretty frustrating season when you look at point production for myself.
“It’s nice to kind of get it back and go into the summer knowing you were just missing the first half of the year. I’m going to continue to work on my game and know that the points will come.”
Notes: The Oilers are 8-27-4 on the road, including 10 straight losses, going into Los Angeles and Anaheim. The franchise low for wins in a full season is eight, set in 1993-94, when the Oilers were 8-23-11 for 27 points… Gilbert isn’t the only Oiler on a roll heading into the last two games. Dustin Penner has scored eight goals and six assists in his last 13 games, Shawn Horcoff has two goals and six assists in his last nine and Andrew Cogliano has five goals and seven assists in his last 14.