SAN JOSE — Tom Gilbert has never been the ice so often.
But with key injuries on the Oilers blue line, the Edmonton Oilers defenceman was forced to play over 31 minutes in the 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.
It’s little wonder he needed a long massage after practice on Wednesday in preparation for Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks.
“He’s still upright so we can probably get a few more minutes out of him,” smiled Oilers head coach Tom Renney. “He played a lot, but we need him though.
“I think he has to push the envelope as much as he can. This is one of those situations where we have to play the game on our toes. If he requires a little extra rest on the bench so be it, but we’re in a position now where we have to see what we’re completely capable of.”
Heading into Tuesday’s contest, Gilbert was averaging 24:11 of ice time. Yet, with injuries to Ryan Whitney and Jim Vandermeer, Gilbert has had to pick up the slack.
“He’s a very efficient player anyway,” said Renney. “He’s very intelligent, he reads the ice well, makes good decisions, by and large, I think he’s one of those guys that can play a lot and log a lot of ice time.”
Acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in 2004, Gilbert, 28, is in his fourth full year with the Oilers. He has five goals and eight assists in 41 games this season.
“I think playing that much is about just getting into a rhythm,” Gilbert said. “It definitely didn’t feel like 31 minutes. You’re just going out there every other shift and just focusing on the game, so you don’t have any idea how much time you’re out there.”
In order to log that much ice time, Gilbert has had to change his game.
When he first broke into the league, Gilbert had difficulty just staying on the blue line. The Minnesota native would jump into the rush at every opportunity.
He finished with 13 goals in his rookie season, breaking Paul Coffey’s team record for most goals by first-year defenceman.
Since then, his goal totals have dwindled as his defensive responsibilities have increased. He had five goals each of the two following seasons.
“It’s a little tough to jump into the rush when you’re playing against other team’s top line,” Gilbert said. “You always have to be aware of that and where they are. You don’t want to be too offensive and give them a chance to come back on a two-on-one break. You have to pick and choose what’s more appropriate.”
Gilbert’s minutes are expected to remain high as long as Whitney is out of the lineup with an ankle injury.
Gilbert has taken over the responsibility as the Oilers top defenceman playing in every situation.
He might be wise to take a page out of the books of some veteran defencemen around the league who play 30 minutes every night.
“Some guys like that, they’re just so smart on the ice, they save so much energy and they’re always positionally in the right spots,” Gilbert said. “That’s the biggest difference.”
Notes: Gilbert Brule is still out with an ankle injury and not expected to join the Oilers on the trip through California, which continues in Los Angeles and Anaheim on the weekend. Brule was injured in the Oilers win against the New York Islanders a week ago … Shawn Horcoff continues to practise with the team, but is still about two weeks away from returning due to a knee injury.