Dennis Gilbert talks Wednesday in KeyBank Center. ©2024

Seasons with Flames changed Sabres newcomer Dennis Gilbert’s career

BUFFALO – Almost two years ago, a seven-game stint with the Calgary Flames changed defenseman Dennis Gilbert’s career.

Gilbert played sparingly during that short recall, sometimes skating less than 10 minutes an outing. By the end of that November, he was back in the AHL, where he had spent the entire previous season.

But the lessons the Williamsville native learned from former Flames coach Darryl Sutter and his staff during those three weeks stuck with him.

“I really figured out what I was,” said Gilbert, who on Monday signed a one-year, $825,000 contract with the Sabres shortly after free agency opened.

Gilbert, who was in his third organization, said he “figured out what it was going to take for me to be in the NHL every day.” He learned how to contribute in different ways.

When the Flames recalled him two months later, he stayed for good. He hasn’t played a game in the minors since then.

“I took a lot of good steps, making sure that practice days were treated like game days and staying competitive and keep the juices flowing,” Gilbert said Wednesday in KeyBank Center. “Bringing that stuff every day is a big part of consistency. That’s what I thought I was able to kind of figure out in my fifth and sixth year pro.”

The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Gilbert, 27, said he has developed into a “defensive-first player.”

“I try to be extremely hard to play against,” he said.

As a team, the Sabres simply haven’t been hard enough to play against. That’s why acquiring gritty players has been their top offseason priority.

In the last week, the Sabres have signed Gilbert, center Sam Lafferty and wingers Jason Zucker and Nicolas Aube-Kubel and traded for winger Beck Malenstyn.

Gilbert, having fought 12 times in 82 career NHL games, according to, has a penchant for dropping the gloves.

“That’s something that’s not going to change,” he said.

But Gilbert knows you can showcase physicality in other ways.

“It’s being super physical,” he said. “It’s after the whistle. It’s boxing guys out, giving a cross-check. If somebody takes a run at somebody on your team and they don’t even connect, but you go over and say something to them or you’re getting in their face. All that stuff is a big part of that.

“You don’t need to have two, three, four, five guys that just fight 20 times a year like you did 15, 20 years ago. Now it’s that team toughness and that really starts with having a good group of guys that are willing to do that to start it off. That’s super contagious.”

Gilbert, who will likely skate on the third pairing, already sounds at home with the Sabres, the team he grew up rooting for.

He has ties to Kevyn Adams and some Sabres from the past. Prior to attending Notre Dame and getting drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, he developed in the Academy of Hockey and played for the Jr. Sabres, the organizations Adams ran before becoming general manager.

“A lot of them helped train me from Brian Campbell to (assistant coach Matt Ellis) to Kevyn back at the Academy of Hockey,” Gilbert said. “So there’s been a lot of connections.”

An opportunity to play for Lindy Ruff, who coached those memorable Sabres teams from his childhood, is special. The Sabres brought back Ruff in April.

“With Lindy, it’s cool,” Gilbert said. “I mean, you guys all were here (when the Sabres were winning), the city is just amazing. Like, I was getting days off of school for playoff games. It was a special time and it’s a super passionate fan base here.

“I think when you think of those times, you think of the players, but you think of Lindy a lot. It definitely makes signing here at this point in time a little more special.”

In recent years, Gilbert could see the Sabres’ talent developing during his offseason skates in Buffalo.

“Like watching (Tage Thompson’s) progression from playing most of the year in Rochester to really popping a couple years ago,” he said. “I was skating with him most of that summer so you could see it kind of coming. A lot of the guys are like that. There’s just so much talent and speed and ability kind of throughout the lineup.

“Hopefully with age and maturity and some of the guys that are coming in, including myself, we can try to bring some of that snarl and that anger and kind of make some more pushback.”

The Rochester Americans on Wednesday signed six players to one-year AHL contracts: goalie Michael Houser; forwards Graham Slaggert and Brendan Warren; defensemen Noah Laaouan, Ethan Prow and Peter Tischke.

The Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday signed former Sabres defenseman Riley Stillman to a one-year, two-way contract worth $775,000 in the NHL and $150,000 in the AHL, with $350,000 guaranteed.

Stillman, 26, spent all of last season in Rochester.

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