ROCKFORD — Dennis Gilbert didn’t have his immediate sights set on the NHL when he entered his first professional season last fall.
The Blackhawks left-handed defenseman prospect knew he needed to develop and improve his game in the AHL. And he did thanks to his work ethic and deliberate approach to improving his game.
“My mindset coming (to the AHL) last year from the first day I got here was to not look really long picture, but get better each day,” Gilbert said. “I thought having that mindset and being consistent with working with that as an objective of mine kinda paid off in the long run getting the most improved player for the team.
The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Gilbert isn’t like most of the Rockford IceHogs defensemen — he’s a defensive-minded player who doesn’t shy away from blocking shots and can knock players off the puck. He tallied 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 63 AHL games. But his offensive production didn’t really come on until after the all-star break when he racked up five goals and four assists in the final 26 games of the season.
“He’s turned into a mature player now, and he’s really worked on his game,” Rockford head coach Derek King said. “From Traverse City (NHL Prospect Tournament) last year to this year it’s night and day. It just shows you when you work at it and (he) gets his habits (right), he turns himself into a National Hockey League player.”
Gilbert, who had an impressive training camp with the Blackhawks and was re-assigned to the AHL after playing in Chicago’s 4-3 season-opening loss to the Flyers in Prague, plans to keep his mindset focused on development.
“Back down (in the AHL) now, I’m just trying to again keep getting better each day and work to get up there (in the NHL),” he said.
King hopes rookie defensemen Adam Boqvist, who will likely be paired with Gilbert on the top line, Nicolas Beaudin and Chad Krys will follow Gilbert’s approach.
“Obviously, him coming back is going to be huge for our young guys because they can see how he’s worked his way up to the top, and they just have to follow in his footsteps,” King said. “He’s a leader, too. He’s going to help us a lot on the ice.”
Gilbert is eager to take on a leadership role and cites last season’s captain Andrew Campbell as an example of a player he learned from on and off the ice. For Gilbert though, he’s likely first in line for an NHL call up if an injury occurs. In order to ensure his position in that spot though, he’ll have to take his game to another level.
“You can always get better in every facet of your game,” he said. “For me, I think I’m a good skater but I want to be a great skater. I think I’m a good defender, but I want to be a great defender. To be great at (NHL) level, you have to dominate at (AHL) level so I’m going to be working really hard in practice and games to make sure I’m pushing myself to get better whether that’s my gap control, using my feet to get up ice and killing plays, being good offensively, taking a leadership role down here. All those things have kinda helped me get better every day.”