a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Saturday, 14 July 2012

07/14/12 Perception Vs. Reality: Tom Gilbert

Tom Gilbert was the whipping boy of Oilers fans for a significant chunk of his time in Edmonton. Never able to replicate his 45-point season in 2008-09, many fans weren't sad to see him go. Apparently management wasn't either, and that's extremely worrisome.

I'll admit to a certain amount of uncertainty at times when it came to Gilbert, especially in 2010-11. After a career-low 26 points and minus-14 rating, Gilbert had seen both totals decline for two seasons in a row. Of course, he was playing on some truly awful Oilers teams and doing virtually all of the heavy lifting, but there were growing contingents of fans who believed that Gilbert simply wasn't up to the task.

2011-12 changed all that.

Not only was Gilbert 21st in TOI per game of all NHL defensemen, but he was also 64th in powerplay and 17th in penalty kill time per game. Gilbert averaged 18:30 at even strength each night, which was 42nd out of all NHL defenders last season. He faced some of the toughest competition in the league at even strength, started his shifts in the offensive zone just 47.8% of the time, and yet he won the possession battle. He was also on the positive side of the scoring chance data and the Neilson goals plus/minus. While a member of an Oilers team that went on to finish 29th, Gilbert's plus/minus improved to minus-3, from minus-14 the previous season. In March of 2011, Jonathan Willis wrote an informative (and very funny) article about Gilbert's shot-blocking prowess.

Alarmingly, though Gilbert's play improved in 2011-12, the old perceptions about him seem to be what pushed him out of town. There is a load of data to show that Gilbert's subtle style was more effective than it appeared by eye, but how much of that was taken into account when he was traded?

An image from Stars blog The Shootout that fits all too well into the feelings of some Oilers fans
Outside of 2008-09 the Oilers could not have been selling higher on Gilbert. Even discounting the fancystats it was obvious to observers (like, say, pro scouts) that his play had improved, and his ice time was in number-one defenseman territory. And yet the Oilers accepted the deal with the Minnesota Wild like the two teams were on equal footing in negotiations. The old perceptions seem to have seeped in.

The Oilers didn't get younger or significantly cheaper in the trade, and Nick Schultz and Tom Gilbert both have two more years left on their deals. There's a school of thought that says the Oilers moved Gilbert out of town in order to shake up the dressing room and to remove a culture of entitlement or complacency. The question is: if Gilbert's improved play in 2011-12 wasn't enough to keep him an Oiler, what did he need to do?

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