Tom Gilbert has flown under the radar for most of his time in Florida.
The veteran defenseman was upstaged Sept. 17 when he was invited to camp on a tryout because it was the same day the Panthers brought in goalie Tim Thomas to begin his tryout. Gilbert is paired on the back end with Brian Campbell, a former Lady Byng Trophy recipient and Stanley Cup champion. Yet, he doesn’t mind not getting any publicity for his effort.
“Actually, I was really mad at Timmy that he signed the same day I did because it took away from all my thunder.” Gilbert joked.
Getting serious, he added: “As a player you don’t worry about [the spotlight].”
Gilbert once was considered a hot commodity as an offensive weapon with 176 points in his first seven seasons in the league. The Edmonton Oilers signed him to a six-year deal in 2008 that averaged $4 million per year after he had 13 goals and 20 assists in the 2007-08 campaign. He became a beloved player in hockey-crazed Edmonton, but he entered this year without a contract after Minnesota used a buyout on him over the summer.
The summer of waiting was stressful as he had to wait for an offer to appear for the first time in his career. Without a contract offer on the table, rumors circulated that he could end up playing this year in Switzerland. Gilbert said the rumors were false, and it never crossed his mind to venture to Europe.
Instead he waited patiently for a call from an NHL team willing to give him a chance.
“It was definitely weird the first day of training camp sitting at home, not knowing where I was going to be while other guys are getting going,” Gilbert said. “There was a bit of frustration with that, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I just had to be mentally strong and know something was going to pop up.”
He has certainly proved to be a useful player for the Panthers, eating up time in all three areas of the game. His 17 points through 47 games is tied for sixth on the team and second for defensemen behind his partner, Campbell. Interim coach Peter Horachek said Gilbert has plenty of room for improvement similar to the rest of Florida’s defensive corps.
“He’s moving the puck pretty well,” Horachek said. “There’s battle-skill areas where he has to do a better job, but he moves the puck well, he sees the ice, he’s a smart player.
“He’s right in the mix with everybody else, there’s good things and things we have to get better at.”
Gilbert was only given a one-year contract with the Panthers, so this is by default a contract year. After going through a summer without knowing if he would play in the NHL the following season, Gilbert is focusing on trying to help Florida win and let the rest take care of itself.
“I go out there and I worry about my game, I worry about our team game and that’s how you can control [your future],’’ Gilbert said. “Last summer was a new experience for me, and you realize that there’s not a whole lot you can do.”
Florida plays six of its final seven games in January on the road, starting Saturday night in Raleigh against the Hurricanes.
Of the 11 games remaining before the Olympic break, eight will be away from BB&T Center, so the Panthers understand the importance of the upcoming road trips.
“I don’t really see the road as a deterrent, I see us as the deterrent,” Horachek said. “All of those games are games that we have to play our best hockey.”• Jesse Winchester returned to practice Friday morning from an injured hand. Horachek would not commit to when Winchester would return to the lineup, but said he would be available if he gets cleared after practice.
• The Panthers traded minor-league center Steve Pinizzotto to Edmonton for Ryan Martindale. The 6-3, 207-pound center had 10 points in 22 games with the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL.