(That was a nice win. The Leafs showed some jump. Lupul and Kadri set the table again in the first period. The blue and white got some ‘balanced scoring’, as we like to say, and ran over the Lighting in a key encounter with one of a number of Eastern Conference foes looking for the same slice of the standings pie…)
Gardiner showed his usual jump, made some solid defensive plays (including breaking up a dangerous two-on-one in the first period) and generally acquitted himself the way we came to expect last season in his break-out rookie season in the NHL. By the end of the game, he had garnered close to 20 minutes of ice time- and we know he can play a lot more than that. Pre-injury, the guy looked like he was never winded.
Exactly why he was ‘stalled’ (held back, some might say) in the AHL will no doubt be a question for debate in the days ahead. (There are many theories: he wasn’t healthy when he joined the Leafs earlier this season; Carlyle had concerns with his defensive readiness; the infamous agent tweet a couple of weeks ago…) But we all knew he would be back once the team faced some injuries, started to lose games or other defensemen struggled with their games. Some guys did start to struggle, the team was losing, and so Gardiner is back. Conspiracy theories aside, Carlyle had been intent earlier, it seems, on not breaking up a winning lineup, though he did replace Kostka with Holzer a while back.
In any event, Gardiner’s back—to stay.
Last fall, I wrote about his offensive potential (click to read more). I’m sure we all saw it. His point totals were good, especially for a first-year player, but he could have had, with any luck, many more goals and points a year ago. I see no reason that he won’t deliver at a very high level in terms of production from the back end. He has the skating skills, the instincts, the shot and the smarts to be a tremendous offensive defensemen.
Whether, as I’ve stressed here before, he will also stand out in the playoffs when free ice is harder to find and even relatively ‘timid’ (no one is really timid if they make it to the NHL) forwards finish their checks with authority, well, we’ll see. He is fantastic at skating away from trouble, and that should stand him in good stead. He will also need to be tough in the corners and in front of his own net, where battles for space, position—and the puck—are a constant come playoff time.
But all that said, it’s nice to see Gardiner back. He’s a gifted young player, and he showed a year ago (and all this season, when healthy, with the Marlies) that he should be an impact player with the Leafs. He was, after all, one of the only Leafs most fans thought of as untouchable heading into this long-delayed season.
Hopefully he and Carlyle are on the same page, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be. The brass—and Gardiner—will no doubt, publicly at least, emphasize how important his time with the Marlies under Dallas Eakins was, how he has improved his defensive play and how he was called up only when he was truly “ready”.
Things, however, are always exciting in Leafland, so observers will be looking for any signs of slippage in the coach-player relationship.
My guess? All will be fine.
Two points in the bag. On to Buffalo.