Just as the 2011-’12 season was kicking off back in early October, I was pretty emphatic here that I thought young Jake Gardiner should start the season in the minors with the Marlies.
My rationale was fairly straightforward. Gardiner had zilch NHL experience, and, at 21 and coming out of college, should have the opportunity to earn all kinds of ice time and gain tremendous experience at the pro level under a good coach in Dallas Eakins.
At the same time, I figured the Leafs already had (at least) 7 other experienced NHL defensemen in Phaneuf and Gunner, Komisarek, Franson, Liles, Aulie and of course the then newly re-signed Luke Schenn.
As much as I believe in training camp being a legitimate platform for a guy to showcase his skills in front of the brass, I didn’t see the point of rushing a youngster when there was simply no need. We could all see Gardiner could skate (seemingly effortlessly—it can’t really be that easy, can it?) but time in the minors, in my observatios over many years, hurts no player.
Yet the Leafs, somewhat surprisingly, did send Aulie down. (Burke has since said publicly that Aulie seemed to come into camp thinking he was already on the team. I’m not sure that was really the case, but regardless, he has spent most of the season with the Marlies or watching the big team from upstairs in the press box.)
And of course we had the early-season kerfuffle whereby Franson was, understandably in my mind, none too pleased with being the odd man out on a Leaf team that wasn’t exactly a Cup contender or super-deep on defense just a few short months before. Meanwhile, Franson had been playing key minutes in the second round of the NHL playoffs for the Predators.
In any event, Gardiner turned enough heads in camp that they felt he had to play. And since that time, he has done nothing to dissuade the view that he should be playing at the NHL level.
So, as it’s always good to acknowledge one’s errors, let me simply state that I was apparently wrong about Gardiner. He has lapped up (and earned) big minutes under Wilson, and some nights has probably been the team’s best defenseman. Now, he still makes mistakes, as all defensemen do. And, I remain concerned that when the games become much more physical down the stretch (and in the playoffs, if we can “blue sky” a bit), that will be another challenge to overcome for him.
But the youngster can skate, and it’s hard to imagine a young player be any more composed that Gardiner, eh?
Whether the long NHL schedule will causes the seemingly requisite “hitting the wall” at some point this season, I have no idea. (What do college kids in the U.S. play these days, 40 games a season maybe?) But he seems to be coping nicely, despite a few less-than-perfect defensive performances of late and a healthy scratch against Buffalo Thursday night.
To be clear, I did not make my early season assessment simply on the backs of, say, the early ‘80s Leafs who rushed Benning, Boimistruck and McGill into the line-up before they were 20. Yes, like many of you, I’ve seen the Leaf organization in particular bring in much-heralded players (be they goalies, forwards or defensemen) over the years, only to see them leave town—or leave the game entirely, not having achieved the success they probably deserved or certainly could have had with better coaching, a minimum of patience and not been rushed too soon.
That’s a factor in my thinking, sure, but primarily I thought the team had at least six guys who had earned their spurs for a lot longer at the NHL level than Gardiner, and I felt he needed to do so as well before so quickly joining the big club.
The only real reason the Franson kerfuffle was sorted out is that Komisarek went down with an injury. While his return is not imminent, it will beg the question if and when the veteran defenseman is ready to play: who sits? Schenn, who leads the team in hits? The highly-paid Komisarek, who has a physical edge in his game? Franson again?
In any event, Leaf fans can only hope that Gardiner simply continues to thrive playing key minutes as a top-four defenseman with the Leafs. What would be unfortunate is if he hits a serious wall at any point next year, say, and the team suddenly decides it would be prudent to send him to the Marlies for a while to "re-gain his confidence" (as we often hear about young players who are sent down). I’m not saying that couldn’t be a wise approach (it worked with Rod Langway, I recall, another young American defenseman with Montreal in 1978-’79) but not, for me, the ideal.
I would rather a guy be well-cooked in the minors, so that, by the time he arrives, he never has to go back down. As I’ve posted here many times before, I would have been much happier if the organization had done precisely that last season with Kadri. Let him play the entire year with the Marlies, without messing his head with thoughts that he should be or could be in the NHL any minute. But I’ll talk about that situation another time…)
In any event, it looks like they’ve done the right thing for and by Gardiner.
I was wrong. They were right.