Dennis Gilbert walked into one of the dozen interviews he had scheduled with NHL teams, and he noticed the room became a whirlwind of motion. Club officials continually switched seats and asked questions from all directions, including behind him.
The team was testing the Buffalo-born prospect, seeing if the 18-year-old could stay calm under pressure and confusion. He’s confident he performed as well during the chat as he has on the ice.
“I think the interview process is a strength for me,” said Gilbert, who recalled taking a public speaking elective at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. “I guess that class paid off.”
Gilbert, along with 119 other players eligible for the NHL Draft, shuttled between First Niagara Center and a downtown hotel Tuesday as the Scouting Combine kicked off with interview sessions. The chats will continue Wednesday, with Gilbert’s two-day itinerary including talks with Chicago, Toronto, Nashville and the hometown Sabres.
“I just try to articulate my words the right way, talk about my game a little bit, and talk about my style and what I can bring to their team,” Gilbert said outside the arena. “They test your morality a little bit sometimes. Obviously, if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders you’re going to do fine on that type of a question.”
In addition to a good head, Gilbert has impressive skills. NHL Central Scouting ranks the defenseman as the No. 58 prospect in North America, a spot that will lead one team to draft him June 26 or 27 in Florida. The club will get a player who is blossoming at the right time.
Central Scouting’s preseason list of players to watch had Gilbert as a “C” prospect worthy of a late-round selection. He was No. 72 in the agency’s midseason rankings and vaulted past another 14 prospects in the final evaluations.
Gilbert, who played for Chicago of the United States Hockey League, realized he had a chance to be drafted once the watch list came out.
“That was cool to know that guys were keeping tabs and kind of looking for me, and I was one of the guys that they circle in the book,” Gilbert said. “I just tried to keep playing my game and help the Steel win. In turn by just doing that they kind of saw me an unselfish player and a team guy who could do a lot for his team.”
Scouts who saw Gilbert play for the Junior Sabres in 2013-14 knew he had offensive skills. He finished third among team defensemen in scoring (17 points in 35 games) despite being the youngest player. He led Chicago’s blue-liners this year, putting up 23 assists and 27 points in 59 games. He was named to the USHL All-Rookie First Team.
While the offense was obviously nice, the Williamsville resident was happier that he turned into an all-around player. His attention to detail improved against better competition, as did his recognition of which opponents were on the ice.
“I found new parts of my game that I didn’t think I could find as far as defensively and more physicality, a little snarl to my game,” said the 6-foot-2, 201-pounder. “I just didn’t take a lot of pride in my defensive game until this year. I never really had to because I was always fast enough or strong enough to get back and recover after being up in the offensive rush.
“This year, I learned that every level you go up the more skilled the guys are. Everyone can play, so you have to be able to defend every guy. You just want to make sure you’re not overlooking anything, especially in the defensive zone, playing hard defense and closing off the skill players. You want to make sure you go a little extra hard on them.”
Gilbert’s tenacity attracted the interest of Notre Dame. He verbally committed to Niagara University a couple of years ago, but a visit this winter to South Bend, Ind., negated that.
“It makes you not want to leave,” he said of the Fighting Irish campus. “That’s why I knew it was the school for me.”
He’ll start classes and offseason training this month.
“We’re excited by him,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said on signing day. “He’s a guy that will be great for our transitional game because he likes to jump into the play but can also become a great defender with his skating ability and size.”
Gilbert will miss one day of classes because of the draft, an event that will double as a family reunion. His uncle, Michael, will be in Florida as the Sabres’ vice president of public and community relations, and at least 30 others will head down.
First, Gilbert will have to finish the Combine. He’s talked about Friday and Saturday’s grueling bike rides with his fellow prospects and learned he’s not as nervous as many of them. Much like the interviews, he’s staying calm as things swirl around him.
“Whether I get drafted in the seventh round, the first round or don’t at all, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I have to go to Notre Dame and perform there and be a great defenseman for them, do whatever I can to make that team win. When that happens, I go to the next level and try to do that there. It’s a constant process of moving up.
“It’s just starting, so I’ve got to keep working.”