Gilbert steps up for Oilers

DEREK VANDIEST

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

Last season, Tom Gilbert came in under the radar - a young, talented college defenceman who was acquired on a deal with the Colorado Avalanche.

A year later, he's considered one of the pillars of the franchise, who was thrown a lot of money this off-season.

After getting off to a slow start, Gilbert is beginning to find his game and his place among a talented group of defencemen on the Edmonton Oilers blue-line.

"I know I only have two goals so far this year, but as of late, I'm starting to get a lot more chances which is always a positive thing," he said, following an autograph session with Robert Nilsson at the new Rexall Pharmacy location on Refinery Row. "I think the goals will come, hopefully a little bit more now. But as of late, I've been playing with a lot more confidence. It's been a little easier on the ice for me and I'm seeing the ice a little better now than I did in the first 10 games."

Gilbert, 25, finished with 13 goals and 20 assists in his first full year with the Oilers last season.

The 13 goals and 33 points were new standards for an Oilers rookie defenceman, breaking marks set by Paul Coffey (nine goals, 32 points) during the 1980-81 season.

So far this year, the native of Minneapolis, Minn., is on pace to improve on his point total from last season, with 11 points so far through 20 games.

However, unless Gilbert starts putting the puck in the net on a more consistent basis, he won't be improving on his goal output.

"It's been different this year," admitted Gilbert. "Last year I was just happy to be playing, so there wasn't a lot of pressure. At the beginning of this year there was some pressure, but I think I was able to get over that.

"You just have to go out there and play, you can't really focus on anything else. You have to worry about your game and not the pressure that you have to perform out there. That's when you start making mistakes and you don't play your game. You just have to go out there and have fun, and as of late, that's what I've been doing."

Originally acquired from the Avalanche in the deal that sent goaltender Tommy Salo the other way, Gilbert quickly developed into the offensive defenceman the Oilers were so desperate for following the Stanley Cup run and the defections of Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek.

Gilbert was Colorado's fifth pick - 129th overall - in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He played four years at the University of Wisconsin, scoring the overtime winner over Boston College in the 2006 NCAA championship game, before turning pro.

In his one year in the American Hockey League, Gilbert had four goals and 26 assists in 48 games before getting called up to finish out the season with the Oilers.

He made the team out of training camp last year and went on to have an outstanding rookie season, after which he signed a six-year $24-million deal.

"I want to go out there and play the way I was playing last year," Gilbert said. "I think the team is going to start playing better now and we just have to put together a couple of wins and I think we'll get in a groove."

Gilbert has the luxury of not being the only offensively minded defenceman in the mix this season. With Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky on the squad, the sophomore is not being charged to collect the bulk of the scoring from the back end.

"Those two guys, their stats in their games speak for themselves," Gilbert said.

"They are great players, so if I can fly in under the radar of those two guys, that would be great too."

Having played most of the season with Denis Grebeshkov, Gilbert will be playing with Souray for the next while as head coach Craig MacTavish shuffles the deck in an effort to get some consistency from his troops.

"It's different now playing with Shelly. He gets a lot of minutes, so it's nice because you're always out there with him.

"He's obviously having an unbelievable year. It's nice because he's got a lot of confidence and he's giving me a lot of confidence and it's been good so far."

NOTES: IN AN EFFORT TO ADD MORE PHYSICAL POP TO THEIR LINEUP, THE EDMONTON OILERS HAVE CALLED UP TIM SESTITO FROM THEIR AHL AFFILIATE IN SPRINGFIELD. THE SIX-FOOT,195-LB WINGER FROM ROME, N.Y., HAS TWO GOALS AND AN ASSIST IN 16 GAMES WITH THE FALCONS THIS SEASON.


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