ST. PAUL, Minn. – Just traded by Edmonton, the only NHL team he’s ever played for, Tom Gilbert joined his new club and declared, “it feels like home.”
Well, that’s because it is.
Gilbert grew up less than 20 miles from the Minnesota Wild’s St. Paul headquarters and starred for Bloomington Jefferson High School before a standout college career at Wisconsin. Nearly through his fifth NHL season, Gilbert was dealt by the Oilers to the Wild for fellow defenceman Nick Schultz.
Gilbert took part in Minnesota’s morning skate before Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings, his scheduled debut on a revamped blue line after a flurry of trades before the NHL’s deadline. Defencemen Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon were traded away, and Gilbert and Kurtis Foster were acquired to join Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Nate Prosser, Justin Falk and Mike Lundin.
The Wild wanted more of a puck-moving, offensive-minded player, enough that they were willing to move their longest-tenured skater in Schultz, a popular, reliable, durable leader who was a pure stay-at-home defenceman. In Gilbert they got a guy who once had a 40-assist season, in 2008-09. The 29-year-old has 33 goals and 158 points in 384 career games.
“It’s something that I take pride in, trying to get the puck up the ice as soon as possible,” Gilbert said.
He’ll see plenty of time on the power play as well, and he’ll be asked to hold important opposing players in check. When the Oilers played the Wild, Gilbert was often lined up against centre Mikko Koivu.
“Not only can he make plays, but they had some confidence in what he can do defensively. As much as anything else, we needed to make improvements as far as how our entire group, our back end, contributes offensively,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Gilbert led the Oilers in ice time with an average of nearly 23 minutes per game. The 29-year-old was drafted by Edmonton in 2002. Gilbert will become the seventh native Minnesotan to play for the Wild this season. Prosser (Elk River), Lundin (Apple Valley), Matt Cullen (Moorhead), Jarod Palmer (Fridley), Chad Rau (Eden Prairie) and Jeff Taffe (Hastings) are the others.
Gilbert will pair with Falk, for now. He downplayed the difficulty of adjusting to a new system with only 20 games to go in the regular season.
“Just go out there and play hockey,” was the way he described his mindset. “Most teams are pretty similar. There’s a few tactics that are different but that comes with time.”
With Gilbert, Foster and forwards Stephane Veilleux and Nick Palmieiri, the Wild have some fresh blood for their outside shot at getting back to the playoffs.
“All those guys are coming in here, and there’s no thoughts about where we were or, ‘How did we get there?'” Their only thought is where we’re at right now, and they’re excited about the opportunity to try to gain some ground on some teams,” Yeo said.
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