Gilbert filling some big skates

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

Tom Gilbert better get used to the workload.

From now until the end of the season, the Edmonton Oilers defenceman is expected to play on the top pairing, kill penalties and man the point on the power play.

He's gone from logging just over 21 minutes of ice time a night to playing a team-high 27:07 Tuesday in a 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators.

He'll probably play similar minutes Thursday as the Oilers begin a four-game road trip in Montreal.

"He's going to have to get used to playing that much," said Oilers head coach Pat Quinn.

"That's part of developing your conditioning and your mental play, so you can take up more time. Tom is conditioned well and we figured he's able to play more time. We have a lot of young guys back there on defence now."

With the injury to Sheldon Souray and the subsequent trading away of Denis Grebeshkov, Lubomir Visnovsky and Steve Staios, the onus has fallen on Gilbert to pick up the slack.

Just three years into his tenure with the Oilers, the 27-year-old native of Bloomington, Minn., has suddenly become one of the elder statesman on the blue-line.

If he was perhaps lost in the shuffle before, there is no confusing his role now as one of the Oilers' top-two defencemen.

"I think the biggest difference is that if you're going to be out there a lot, you don't want to be out there too long," Gilbert said.

"You don't want your shifts to be 50, 55 seconds, you want them to be more in the 40-second range. Having quick shifts is crucial if you're going to play those kind of minutes."

He's also playing those minutes against the opposition's top line. Known for his offensive capabilities, going up against other teams' best players is also giving his defensive game a workout.

"It's a little more challenging," Gilbert said. "But it shouldn't matter who you're playing against, if you're in the right position and there is talk on the ice and you know where your partner is, it makes the game a lot easier regardless of who you're playing against."

Skating alongside Ryan Whitney helps. The two have developed a strong rapport in the short time they've been together. Acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for Visnovsky, as a former first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Whitney is used to being the featured guy on defence.

"So far, it's been great playing with him," Gilbert said. "We're starting to figure out where each other is going to be. It makes the game a lot easier knowing where he's going to be. He moves the puck well and if he's got nothing, I try to get open for him and I try to move the puck as quickly as I can up the ice.

"It makes such a difference when you play with a player like him that has such a great offensive upside and can make plays and limit your time in the defensive zone."

As the Oilers move forward with their rebuilding phase, Gilbert will also be counted on to take on a bigger leadership role. He's been appointed an assistant captain with the club as the Oilers make their way down the homestretch of the season.

Whether he's asked to take on a similar role next year will depend a lot on how he handles the responsibility now.

"I've never been too much of a vocal guy, I'm more a guy that likes to lead by example," Gilbert said.

"I'm a guy that tries to come every single night and do what it takes to win games. I think everyone here, to an extent, has to try and lead regardless if you have a letter on your jersey or not."


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