Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Tom Gilbert may only be a rookie, but he has the offensive instincts of a veteran. In his first 18 games, Gilbert is leading all Penguins defensemen in scoring with three goals and 13 points.Times Leader Staff Photo/Pete G. Wilcox
WILKES-BARRE TWP. – Among the toughest lessons for young defensemen to learn is when to join the rush and when to hang back.
In that regard, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Tom Gilbert is way ahead of a lot of his peers.
Gilbert, a 23-year-old Minneapolis native, rarely hesitates to join the attack when an opportunity presents itself.
And, Gilbert is always looking for that opportunity.
“For me, that’s what I do really well,” Gilbert said. “I know when to jump in. I know where to go. I know how to get in the play.”
If Gilbert sometimes looks like a forward, it might be because he used to be one.
From peewees up until his junior year of high school, Gilbert played at forward almost as much as he did at defense.
It wasn’t until his last two years of high school that defense became his specialty.
And even then, Gilbert’s offensive abilities were good enough that he still got to skate the occasional shift at forward.
“It was back and forth (between the two positions),” Gilbert said. “But the thing I like about defense is you just see the ice so much better.
“Obviously, I like keeping the puck out of our net. That’s something I pride myself on. I don’t like to get scored on ever. But I like offensive play.”
There’s no question that Gilbert’s offensive instincts are top notch.
Twenty-one games into the season, he’s the leading scorer among Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s defensemen.
He has three goals and 10 assists for 13 points – two more than assistant captain Micki DuPont, who’s no slouch when it comes to scoring from the blue line.
And he’s done so without cutting corners on defense.
Headed into this weekend’s games with Hershey and Binghamton, Gilbert had a plus-4 rating. Only Alain Nasreddine’s plus-8 was higher among Penguins defensemen.
“He’s a good puck-moving D-man,” said Penguins defenseman Matt Carkner, Gilbert’s regular defensive partner. “He joins the play. He makes things happen. It’s good playing with him. He’s been my partner for a little bit and we’re getting along well. It’s good because we kind of know what we’re doing now, and when you have a little bit of chemistry it makes things easier.”
Even if he does have a winger’s instincts, Gilbert admits that being aggressive when you’re a rookie can be one of the hardest parts of the job.
“That’s the thing,” Gilbert said. “You come in and it’s your first year and you’re nervous and you don’t want to mess up. You don’t want to give up odd-man rushes against. You want to play solid defense before you play offense.
“For me, I think I’ve done a pretty good job defensively. My confidence grew so now I can get in the play more.”
Last Wednesday against Syracuse, Gilbert showed off that growing confidence by leading the rush and scoring a third-period goal.
“We just talked about that today – joining the rush and creating odd-man rushes offensively,” Carkner said. “You know, you need guys like Tom to be doing that. Every defenseman should add that to their game.”
It was the kind of thing Gilbert did all the time in college at the University of Wisconsin during a four-year career that saw him score 89 points in 162 games.
In two of his four seasons with the Badgers he was the team’s leading defensive scorer.
As a senior, he scored 12 goals and 31 points. Goal No. 12 was the game-winner in the NCAA championship game last spring, and, so far, the high point of Gilbert’s hockey career.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was on a power play. There was 10 minutes left in the game. It was in Wisconsin. It’s something you can’t really. … It was the best feeling ever.”
Acquired: Traded to Edmonton by Colorado in exchange for G Tommy Salo and the Oilers’ sixth-round pick in the 2005 draft (Justin Mercier) on March 8, 2004.
Ht: 6-3. Wt: 210.
June 22, 2002: Drafted by Colorado in the fourth round (129th overall).
Oct. 11, 2002: Scored a goal 5:05 into his first college game, a 5-1 loss to RPI in the Ice Breaker Tournament.
April 8, 2006: Scored the game-winning goal in Wisconsin’s 3-2 NCAA championship game victory over Boston College.
Oct. 7, 2006: Made his AHL debut and registered his first point, an assist, in a 7-4 loss to Hershey.
Nov. 8, 2006: Scored his first professional goal in a 4-0 win at Hartford.