Let me start, before I get flooded with e-mails and comments, by saying that Jake Gardiner is a talented young defenseman who has a bright future with the Leafs. At times he has been one of the few positives in an increasingly dismal season for the blue and white.
But watching the Leafs skate past the Sabres 4-3 Saturday night at the ACC (they finally looked at times as though they weren’t carrying a house on their backs most of the night…), I couldn’t help but harken back to how often we’ve been told in recent years about the Leafs and their supposed “meritocracy”. That is, we were supposed to believe that only those Leaf players who truly deserve to be on the roster—and in the line-up on game night—would be here.
It’s hardly a novel idea (we’re not the only franchise that wants to win), but this meritocracy, like a lot of other self-serving public proclamations from the current Leaf administration, (“entitlement”, “blue and white disease”, “every game is a try-out”, “I build my teams from the back end…”, etc., it was supposed to send a message to the fan base—and the players—that management was serious and if you didn’t pull your weight, well, you wouldn’t play, and may not even be here. We were assured that the bad old days (at least the GM kept reminding us those were bad days before he arrived) were behind us.
But this about-to-be-concluded season has convinced me that all the above talk was just that—talk.
Now, when you write often enough, as I do, it’s entirely possible that you end up contradicting yourself. And I think it’s entirely possible that I will confuse even myself with what I am about to write, because it seems to collide a bit with something I penned in this space back as training camp was just getting under way, on the subject of “every game is a try-out”. (I call your attention to that post, because while you may disagree, it kind of sets the table for what I’ll try to convey now…)
Back in September, I was complaining that it troubled me that there were virtually no jobs available on the Leafs roster. My thought was—how can this be, when this club has not made the playoffs since the Quinn days in 2004? I thought, isn’t that what training camp is for (even in a salary cap era)—to pick the best players? What about the "meritocracy"?
This is where my own logic likely fails me. I wanted competition, I wanted to hear—and believe—that the Leafs would break camp with the guys who really deserved to be on the roster. It’s always a balancing act, I realize, between respecting what a player has done in the past, and measuring that against what an incoming player may show in camp.
In any event, I wondered aloud (some of you heard me say it here many times) if the Leafs were doing the right thing in October when they started the season with Jake Gardiner on the big club.
Oh, like a lot of you, I saw Gardiner play in pre-season and he clearly was comfortable playing at this level. His effortless skating, his vision and calm on-ice demeanor made his potential quite apparent. So did he, based on one good training camp, deserve a starting spot in the Leafs “top-six” on the blueline?
I didn’t think so. Why? Because while Keith Aulie didn’t have a great camp, I thought he had showed very well last season after he was called-up. I felt he deserved to start the regular-season with the big club and at least have the opportunity to play himself off the roster. You will recall that Cody Franson, who played key minutes in the playoffs for a very good Nashville team last spring, started the season as a healthy scratch.
Shortly thereafter Mike Komisarek followed suit. Then, if I’m not mistaken, so did Luke Schenn, as Ron Wilson tried to get everyone in the line-up.
But I felt at the time that insisting on Gardiner being in the line-up most nights was just setting things off on the wrong foot, that it would have made more sense for him (though clearly capable and ready to play) to start with the Marlies, play a lot, show he’s ready and then when he had “earned” his promotion, take his spot here if any of Aulie, Komisarek or even Schenn struggled.
I understand that Gardiner played very well and maybe some people feel he had earned his spot with a good camp. I thought he jumped the queue and that it worked against dressing room chemistry, though the team’s early season record would seem to invalidate my argument.
Gardiner aside, as the season wore on, I was more baffled by some of the other personnel decisions. There were times that it seemed clear to me that Gustavsson deserved more playing time (not that he was always brilliant, but sometimes he was pretty good and found himself watching from the end of the bench next game anyway). I thought they killed his confidence, what they hadn’t already obliterated last season.
Too, when this team was crying for veteran leadership and needed someone with experience to be a guy to lean on, I thought Tim Connolly did not show the required grit and desire most nights. I know he’s a “skill” guy, but I thought there were times his place could have been filled by more deserving, and, frankly, harder-working Leafs. Yet they kept sending him out there.
Interestingly, while Connolly played, albeit on the third line (and therefore lesser minutes, until Carlyle arrived), Colby Armstrong sat, despite being one of the team’s assistant captains and presumably a team leader. The few times he does get to play, he gets “fighters’ minutes” in terms of his ice time. I’m neither in love with Armstrong or a critic of his game. I just found it interesting.
After the deadline, Brent Ashton was called up and has played now, what is it, 12 games? He is a minus 10 in those games, including a minus 3 against the Sabres Saturday night. Some nights he’s played less than 5 minutes. He had some nice moments Saturday night against the Sabres with industrious effort. But though fans wanted to love his “hard work” in his first couple of games (we sure canonize guys early here), he has seemed largely over his head, at least to me.
Why is he here? The answer is simple. Burke wanted to show he did something at the deadline. He did. He acquired a player who may well be a contributor here someday, but a player who by no means had “earned” his call-up to the big club.
Meanwhile, Ryan Hamilton and Mike Zigomanis (not to sound like Don Cherry here) continued to play their hearts out for the Marlies—two guys who, based on “meritocracy”, deserved to be here ahead of Ashton- by light years.
Maybe I just have a lot of frustration with personnel decisions over the past couple of seasons. The Kadri yo-yo decision-making of the past two years has driven me crazy. I said all last year: keep him down with the Marlies all season. Let him play a lot, develop, learn the two-way game. All the stuff they claimed they wanted him to do. But they kept calling him up—then sending him back.
It’s been the same thing this season. Why not just let the kid play there, and once he joins the big club, he should be ready to stay here—for good.
As for Gardiner, I now see people are comparing him to Karlsson in Ottawa, who after one good season evidently wants a huge contract, probably like Doughty held out for in Los Angeles. (I’m not “anti-player”, but how is that that 21 year-olds figure, after a couple of seasons, they are worth 8 million a year for 10 years? I hope that’s not the debate we’ll have about Gardiner in a year or two…)
Again, I like Gardiner. Fabulous skater. He is so calm and poised. But he can be outmuscled for the puck (we’ve seen that many times) and still needs to enhance his overall game to be effective come playoff time—when opposing forwards will run you over to make a play. Like Tomas Kaberle in his early days, Gardiner can usually skate away from trouble, yes. But also like Kabby, he’s not a physical presence in his own zone. If we had made the playoffs this spring and met the Bruins or Rangers or Philly, I have a nagging feeling we’d be talking about how much Gardiner will have to improve in his own zone against physical teams.
So what am I saying? I’m not sure even I know. Yes, Gardiner deserve to be a Leaf, but I would have preferred that he spend time with the Marlies, and then been called up. I would have preferred that Kadri had not been rushed twice last season (when he didn’t deserve to be here), and had been allowed to play with the Marlies all of 2010-’11. Maybe, then, he would have been ready by now.
I think we messed with Franson’s confidence. Aulie’s too, and we finally traded him. Schenn was a healthy scratch out west at a time that really hurt him, I think. Connolly should have been benched. Kulemin should have spent some time upstairs. (I know, I know, we all say how hard he worked defensively, but honestly—and I love the guy—he didn’t seem engaged a lot of nights this season. He needed a wake-up call, or so it seemed to me.)
Ashton should never have been here.
A long-winded way of saying, I guess, that, this summer and next fall at training camp, I don’t want to hear anyone from Leaf management talk about how improved we are (“dramatically improved” Burke said last fall, if I’m not mistaken). I don’t want to hear about blue and white disease, unless management personnel is talking talking about themselves. I don’t want to hear the word “meritocracy”. I don’t want to see any more Dallas Eakins commercials. (Nice guy, good coach, but a lousy, artificial-sounding “motivational” commercial.) I have no interest in being told that every game is a try-out—unless it is for our General Manager.
I’ve probably countered my own argument somewhere along the way today, but such are the confused post-game ramblings of an aging Leaf fan who wants less false talk—and more results.
Being reduced as a fan to cheering for a draft pick is not a result. In this market, it should be an outrage.