The Panthers have three players from their 2013-14 NHL roster that will be unrestricted free agents this summer who they may seek to re-sign: Jesse Winchester, Krys Barch, and the subject of this article: Tom Gilbert. Gilbert's importance to this team was something I had not recognized until I was preparing my "Defensive Logjam" article for LBC and ran across a December 5th article by Tyler Dellow for Sportsnet.ca. Analyzing advanced Corsi stats, Dellow wrote that the Gilbert/Campbell pairing had become "one of the NHL's very best, with the Panthers posting a Corsi % north of 55 percent when the two of them are on the ice." What exactly did this mean? Dellow spelled it out in no uncertain terms: "A Corsi % of about 55 percent for a defensive pairing that's playing top minutes is elite, only two teams in the NHL [at that time of course] (L.A. and Chicago) are above that." Holy cow!
Now, in the spirit of honesty, and folks being able to search and retrieve old comments I made about Gilbert earlier this season, where I may have described him as slow, a poor signing, and no longer an NHL caliber defenseman, I was not a Gilbert fan. But nobody can deny that we Panther fans witnessed an exceptional turnaround by Gilbert, or rather, a perceived turnaround. Turns out, Gilbert's early season numbers were not as bad as some Panther fans, myself especially, thought. One month into the season, Gilbert was +4. Still, plus/minus is an admittedly flawed statistic and the eyes only occasionally lie. Gilbert looked slow and often out of position. But, as we reached the conclusion of this unsuccessful season, and a contract negotiation possibility, it begs the question of how important this player is for the Panthers, and what exactly may he be worth? Neither of these are easy to answer, especially in light of the sports hernia surgery that ended his season early, but lets take a look at it.
First, for those new to advanced hockey stats, Corsi percentage is team shots for, plus team shot attempts against. It can be calculated both while a player is on the ice, and while he is not on the ice, which does help (to some degree) to account for factors outside the player's control, such as what line they are playing with and whether that line is defensively responsible or not. When it comes to Corsi percentage, Gilbert has nearly always been a player who has performed better than the teams he was playing for. Gilbert came into the league after four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, and played for the Edmonton Oilers and their defensively challenged teams from 2007-08 until his deadline trade to the Minnesota Wild during the 2011-12 season. A quick look at Gilbert's Corsi % and the Oilers, and Wild's team Corsi when he was off the ice shows that Gilbert has always done better than the team:
2007-08 -6.72 OFF -8.25
2008-09 -3.49 OFF -6.05
2009-10 -6.01 OFF -14.11
2010-11 -3.36 OFF -9.40
2011-12 -4.02 OFF -7.35
The Oiler teams Gilbert played for were awful, but his numbers were consistently better than the team's when he was not on the ice. In 2011-12, Gilbert's point totals took their first modest dip, from a prior season low of 26 points, to a new low of 22 points in 67 games. In 2012-13, with the Wild, Gilbert played only 43 games and had a mere 13 points. This led to the contract buyout that left him a UFA. He was subsequently invited to camp and signed by the Panthers. He played 73 games for the Panthers this season, until the sports hernia ended his season. While healthy, he was a top producer as well, putting up 28 points in 73 games for the Panthers, and was 2nd on the team in assists with 25. The aberration of the 2012-13 season with the Wild has a perfectly reasonable explanation: Gilbert contracted a terrible case of pneumonia before the start of that season and was briefly hospitalized. Gilbert was not himself. Understandably, he was not ready to play that season. He was a healthy scratch numerous times for the Wild during that season and also saw decreased ice time. That other teams may treat him in that manner is certainly a positive the Panthers have going for them.
The Gilbert the Panthers find themselves with made $1 million this season and will do the same next year from the Wild buyout. He also made $900,000 this year with the Panthers, so in effect, he made $1.9 million. He is also 31-years-old and there is the big issue: Is this a resurgent player with good years ahead of him, or is this a player that is benefiting greatly from playing with Brian Campbell? More importantly, how much will the sports hernia effect his play next season? A similar injury sidelined Stephen Weiss this season for the Red Wings, and also was what Sean Bergenheim reportedly sustained as well.
Campbell does make his defensive partners better. As the Tyler Dellow article makes very clear: "Gilbert's almost certainly being carried by Campbell to a degree - Campbell has a fairly lengthy history as an elite defenceman." Panther fans saw this occur with Jason Garrison, whose offensive production exploded with Campbell on his left side. Garrison turned this into a very lucrative deal with Vancouver, and there is every reason to believe that Gilbert could do the same. A simple internet search turns up various team blogs talking about how their team should pursue Gilbert this summer so he is certainly on the radar of GM's out there.
There is every indication that Gilbert is a valuable player for the Panthers. He is a right-handed shot on a team without much right-handed defensive depth. He was not moved at the trade deadline despite being an upcoming UFA and there is always a market for decent defensive depth for playoff-bound teams at the deadline (Mike Weaver anyone?). This was especially true for Gilbert, he comes cheap and would have been a pure rental since he will be a UFA this summer: no long term obligations to tie the renting team up. The Panthers were out of the playoff picture and willing to move important parts like Marcel Goc and Weaver, but Gilbert stayed put. This is an important clue that he has importance to the Cats, or that there is little or no market for his services (which seems unlikely).
What Gilbert is worth is a question that is also wrapped up in why the Panthers have not already locked him into a new contract. It appears that the market has not been set yet for a player of this type this off-season and value is very hard to determine. Gilbert was 58th in points by defensemen this season in the NHL. However, at the time of his injury he was roughly 42nd in the league. Looking at the 10 defensemen ahead of him on that list, and the 10 behind him (at the time of his injury), 2 others are also 31-year-olds and two are 29-year-olds. Looking at them could give us some clues as to what kind of money Gilbert may be looking for. The closest of these is Andy Greene of the Devils, who is 31-years-old and finished 43rd on the NHL points by defensemen list (with 32 points, 4 more than Gilbert). Greene is making $3.25 million this season, the 3rd season of a 4-year deal, and $3.5 million next season.
Looking at several Corsi statistics provides a picture of the player's effectiveness. The first of these is "Corsi For %" which is basically the shot differential while the player is on the ice, the higher the better. "Corsi For % Relative" is how the player's Corsi for % compared with the team when not on the ice. Finally, Corsi-On is the player's on ice- shot differential per 60 minutes. Taking Gilbert as our first analysis, here is how they stacked up:
Name Ranking Corsi For % Corsi For Relative % Corsi On Age Games
Tom Gilbert 58 51.7% +2% 4.15 31 73
Andy Greene 43 56.3% +3% 10.72 31 82
Christian Ehrhoff 40 46% +4.8% -8.51 31 79
Matt Carle 49 47.8% -5% -4.35 29 82
Tobias Enstrom 50 50.6% +.8% 1.92 29 82
Andrew MacDonald 57 43.2% -8.5% -11.42 27 82
Ehrhoff is a red flag of what happens in the UFA market sometimes: extreme overpayments. He is paid $5.2 million per season through the end of 2016-17. His contract widened eyes when it was signed and is now considered an anchor around the rebuilding Sabres neck by some pundits. Carle is making $5.5 million per season through the end of of the 2017-18 season, when he will be 34-years-old. 29-year-old Tobias Enstrom of the Jets is making $5.75 million per season through the end of the 2017-18 season, when he will be 34-years-old. I included Andy MacDonald (even though he is 27-years-old) because he is the most recent NHL defenseman to sign a mega-deal. At the end of the regular season MacDonald signed a 6-year, $30 million deal that pays him $4.25 million next season and goes up every season through 2019-20 when he will be paid $5.75 million. Sense trouble there?
Real estate agents call these "comps" and they don't do much for us here. The big problem is that these contracts were all signed prior to the player turning 30, with productive seasons likely ahead of them. This is more questionable with Gilbert due to age, recent injury and the question of how much Campbell is doing for him. Greene is the closest of the comps but is likely worth more than Gilbert is now.
Dale Tallon is known as a "players GM." He is also known as loyal (sometimes to a fault). It may be that there is a strong relationship between Gilbert and Tallon. Of course this is conjecture on my part, but Gilbert was given a good chance by the Panthers when others were uninterested, and he has been rewarded with hefty playing time, special teams play, and a top pairing. That is all worth something to a player. He is playing in a low pressure market without income tax. He has a guaranteed $1 million coming from Minnesota. He is unlikely to get the playing time and top pairing on a contending team elsewhere. Tallon has the term of years to negotiate as well, more years for less money, or fewer years for more money.
If the relationship is indeed sound, Tallon has the luxury of letting the offers roll in for Gilbert to see if the Panthers will match or not. If not, the Cats run the risk of losing a right-handed defenseman with shallow depth behind him. What exactly he is worth will likely be dictated by the bidding market rather than comps in this case. That can be worrisome in a league with more than its share of irresponsible GM's and owners who spend like drunken sailors. There are other UFA defensemen that will also be available this summer, and some are big names - Dan Boyle, Andrei Markov, Kimmo Timonen, Brooks Orpik, Sami Salo, and Stephane Robidas - just to name a few. Boyle, Salo, and Robidas are all right-handed shooters. Where this places Gilbert is anyone's guess.
Ultimately the market has not yet been set for this level and age player. It will come down to whether Gilbert likes it enough here and the Panthers like him enough to come to an agreement or whether he wants to test the waters and take the risk of walking into the unknown. Unfortunately, he may not be easy to replace as Alex Petrovic does not yet look ready and Erik Gudbranson does not yet look like a first pairing defenseman. This means the Panthers are likely to overpay to a degree if they want to keep Gilbert. Gilbert knows the end of his career is coming. His numbers dropped before his pairing with Campbell and he is at an age where players start to fall off quickly. Anything more than a two-year deal would be very risky, and even two years is a risk in itself. But Gilbert is likely to demand at least two years as a term on any deal to avoid having to go through UFA status again next season as a 32-year-old player, and if he can find a three-year deal I suspect he would (and should) jump at it. A sports hernia injury is a massive complication to the equation. It is not an easy injury to recover from for hockey players and at Gilbert's age it should raise questions and eyebrows. Whether he can return to form is an enormous question mark.
So what are your thoughts on whether the Cats intend to re-sign Tom Gilbert? Do you think he is important to the Panthers, and if so, up to what contract amount and term? Before you answer, consider one more thing: the Panthers signed Ryan Whitney around the same time as Gilbert and we all know how that turned out. Does that risk factor, with just as much likelihood a signing at this age and price will fail as succeed, add to Gilbert's value? How much will this impact the Panther's efforts to sign Dmitry Kulikov? I don't envy Dale Tallon and staff, because regardless of what we all answer, if Gilbert does fall flat, it's DT's neck on the line.