Let’s start by stating the obvious: I saw what everyone else witnessed during the “pre-season”. Young Jake Gardiner showed that, if talent and skating ability was all it took to be an NHL defenseman, he is ready—right now.
The thing is, though, unless you’re in that rare, rare strata of young defensemen/players (Bobby Orr, Dennis Potvin, Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger—all Hall-of-Famers and easily so…) time learning the professional game at the minor-league level can only help, especially, I would think, after a collegiate career. It certainly never hurts. (While people can certain disagree, I’d be pleased to be made aware of one example where a young player was harmed by playing in the AHL…)
Now, just two games into the regular season, we have a young, experienced NHL-caliber defenseman (Cody Franson) cooling his heels up in the press box. No problem, on the one hand. It’s merely a sign of the heretofore unavailable and unaccustomed depth that the Maple Leafs have accumulated on their current blueline.
Until injuries hit, it’s a busy parking lot, for sure. We have Franson sitting and Keith Aulie already biding his time with the Marlies.
Again, this is all good, in many ways. On the one hand, guys need to fight to keep their jobs. The bar is higher in Toronto now than it has been the past half dozen years and players have to perform well to keep their jobs. That’s understood.
But at the same time, there are residual issues—and possible collateral damage, when you make certain unnecessary personnel decisions.
I can’t delve into Franson’s psyche, but I’m sure he did not arrive here thinking he was competing to be the team’s 7th or 8th defensemen. I mean, as self-impressed as we all tend to be in Leaf-urbia when the team adds players and looks a bit better, this was not exactly the 1976-'79 Hab defense here in Toronto last season. (Lapointe, Robinson and Savard, ably supported by many other fine defensemen like Nyrop, Engblom, Chartraw and others in those years, as I recall...)
Nor is it this year. (Witness the last 15 worse-than-sloppy minutes against a very weak Ottawa side this past Saturday night. What would we be talking about this long “off-week” if the Sens had tied that one up on Saturday night? Yikes...)
And no, I also cannot begin to gauge what Aulie is thinking. The guy was hardly (to me, at least) terrible in the pre-season. And I have a hard time believing that a player with his background, who has had to earn his spurs all along the way, needed to be dropped just because someone else showed up with a bit more offensive flair.
But again, I’m not a General Manager or NHL coach, and those guys get paid a lot to make these decisions. But it doesn’t mean that they are always right, either.
To be clear, I have no issue whatsoever with Jake Gardiner. He’s had his moments in the first two games, and one would think that while he will take steps back from time to time, he seems to have the obvious smarts and skill set (and attitude, it would appear) to progress well and have a solid (if not more) NHL career.
And I said as much before the decision was made to keep him (click to see that earlier post). I felt quite strongly he should start the season with the Marlies and build—and fully earn—his way up.
That way, once he was called up, once he did “make it”, he would not be going back down. That’s something that can take a toll of a young guy. We’ve seen that before in Toronto. We rush guys into the line-up when they look good, then throw them on the trash heap at the first sign of trouble. How does that help a young player's confidence- or development?
What’s the hurry? Especially now, with the team's depth on the blueline.
Not that it’s the end of the world when a young player (like we often see in baseball) has to go back down, but why create the yo-yo effect when it’s just not necessary?
To me, the Leafs have messed up the Kadri thing big time. Of course I could well be proven very wrong, but I just think they have handled that one all wrong for all the reasons I have stated many times here on different occasions. (And now we’re told Kadri may spend at least the first few games of his return from injury with the Marlies. How many stints does he need there? If this was Lupul or Kessel, they wouldn’t be assigned to the Marlies when they came back from injury. Is Kadri an NHL player or not?…)
And I may be proven just as wrong about their handling of young Gardiner.
Hey, he may score a hat trick in the next few games and never see the Marlies. But I just sense that, for his long-term confidence and long-term development, he should have started with the Marlies, spent time with Eakins and company, and then moved into the penthouse—for good.
How could that have hurt? I know people will say, “well, he was their best defensemen in the exhibition games. You have to play your best players…”
But how do we know that he is, based on a few exhibition games, when the opposition is nowhere near what it will be in the regular season in terms of personnel or intensity (much less the playoffs)?
I look at Carl Gunnarsson and I don’t want to hear that he may be the next to take a turn sitting. The guy has played international hockey, he has plenty of NHL experience now. In my eyes, the guy is a possible star-in-the-making. And he's just entering his prime as a defenseman.
If I read that he may sit or head down to the Marlies, well, for me, that’s just crazy. (You know it won’t be Schenn, Phaneuf, Komisarek or Liles sitting, so if Franson now has to “get back” into the line-up who goes? Better not be Gunnarsson.
If it’s Gardiner, then why do we have a young guy with his talent sitting upstairs watching other people play the game, when he could be gaining invaluable experience playing lots of minutes with the Marlies?
To me, the Leafs have a nice puzzle in place, but have put a few of the pieces in the wrong place.
And Gardiner is one of them.