CHICAGO — If all goes according to plan, this weekend won’t be the last time Notre Dame sophomore Dennis Gilbert skates around the United Center ice.
That’s because the defenseman is a prized prospect of the Chicago Blackhawks, the organization that drafted him in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
The Williamsville, N.Y. native is on the top pairing for the Fighting Irish defense as they prepare to face Denver, the top seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, in the second Frozen Four semifinal on Thursday evening.
"It’s very special. It’s a storied building. A lot of winning happens here. It’s close to campus. Hopefully that winning tradition can sneak to Notre Dame’s side," said Gilbert.
The Blackhawks are enamored with Gilbert because of his size, athleticism and skating ability. Very few players at 6-feet-4 can move on the ice like he can. The NHL organization that calls the United Center home isn’t Gilbert’s only connection to Chicago.
After playing two years of prep hockey and a year in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) in western New York, Gilbert spent his final year of junior hockey with the Chicago Steel in the USHL, a time he still looks back on with fond memories.
"We all kind of follow up on our [former] teams. It’s been cool to see them come on strong this year. All the alumni are excited," said Gilbert of the Steel’s success this year.
Big defenders typically are perceived as being shutdown defenders, but Gilbert's game is more than just playing strong in his own end. He has 22 assists this season and has been a steadying force when it comes to retrieving pucks and starting the breakout.
"My skating ability and I have a pretty good size frame," said Gilbert when asked about the strengths of his game. "On the offensive side, my skating ability to protect pucks and make a good first pass. My hockey IQ helps me know when to step up and jump into the offense."
While he's still growing into his body, he's bulked up thanks to the help of the Notre Dame strength program. He's learned to play a solid game defensively, something the Irish coaching staff continues to work with him on developing.
"I’m a pretty strong defenseman. I’ve put on a lot of good weight the last few years. I’m using my speed and physicality to close out guys and be a good defender. Closing up gaps and closing guys off are things I’ve focused on the past few years," explained Gilbert.
The Chicago Blackhawks have kept a close eye on Gilbert after drafting him and are impressed with what they've seen. It's very likely he'll end up in the NHL someday when his collegiate playing days are over. As most good prospects do, Gilbert tries to emulate current pros to make his game better.
"[Niklas] Hjalmarsson and [Brent] Seabrook," said Gilbert when asked which NHL players he'd compare his own game. "A mix of those two guys. Both guys play a really hard, physical game and have the ability to take over a game physically or with their stick defensively. They are two guys I try to model my game after. I try to bring speed."
Notre Dame has been one of the top programs in college hockey in terms of moving talent on to the next level. Gilbert credits the Irish staff with work on his physical tools as well as in the film room.
"They've helped me with everything. Our strength staff has been incredible. The coaching staff has helped me with skating, edge work and hockey IQ, watching film," Gilbert said.
Facing Denver will be a stiff challenge, but the Irish might have the benefit of home cooking if it can get momentum early in the game Thursday night.
"It’s going to be huge for us to have a really good start. They are a high powered offensive team with a lot of skill and speed. We need to play physical and hard in our own zone and close off those skilled forwards and make them play defense," said Gilbert.