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Jake Gardiner: a breakout season around the corner?

We all know a lot of the usual clichés when speaking of young NHL defensemen but at least one of them tends to be true:  compared with forwards, it takes longer for defensemen to mature and develop as players.

That said, unless you are one of those generational superstars who step into the league and run the show right away, it takes most young players—regardless of the position they play—a few years to mature, develop and become complete players.  Some never fully do, but the bottom line is you can’t really replace experience. It just takes time- and getting experience playing against the best players in the world.  There are simply things that young players are not exposed to at various earlier levels of hockey, or at least aren’t in situations at the pace at which they happen in the NHL. But once you get a certain level of experience, a player with talent who also works his tail off is usually ready to take off.

All by way of leading up to my belief that one of our emerging Maple Leaf defensemen, Jake Gardiner, is poised for a breakout season.

I’ll take a step back:  Gardiner caught most of us off-guard when he arrived on the scene during the 2011-’12 season.  Only those who closely follow the ‘prospects’ side of the business likely understood what the Leafs were acquiring (potentially) when Brian Burke sent Francois Beauchemin (who has played pretty darn well with Anaheim since) back to the Ducks in return for the injury-plagued and seemingly over-priced winger (Joffrey Lupul) and a college defenseman.

While Leaf fans were thrilled with Lupul’s surprising play, a lot of us were absolutely stunned by what Gardiner delivered in his freshman NHL campaign.  He could skate effortlessly, move the puck nicely and seemed to see the ice awfully well.  But the kicker was that this 21 year-old defenseman (who played the full season under Ron Wilson and later Randy Carlyle) looked so, well, unconcerned when he had the puck.  By that I mean that he was the picture of calm.  He just never really seemed to get rattled.  And not just by being in the NHL, but when opposing players would test him, pressure and forecheck him.  

This was a guy who wasn’t losing sleep about the stress of being in the NHL. Or at least it certainly didn't seem so.

Now, we all well remember what transpired this past season.  The lockout stymied just about everyone and everything, but Gardiner had the opportunity to play with the Marlies and was, by all accounts, not only the best player on Dallas Eakins’ roster but likely the top player in the entire league (or at least alongside his old college teammate, Justin Schultz, who was also opening eyes with his play in his first professional season). However, when the lockout finally ended and NHL training camp, such as it was, took place in January, Gardiner was not available because of a concussion he had suffered after his brilliant early-season play with the Leaf farm club.

By the time he was back (rushed into?) in the Leaf lineup, he showed flashes but was maybe not quite his early-season (or NHL rookie year) self.  Whatever was the case, Carlyle didn’t seem to like what he saw, so after only a couple of games Gardiner was back with the Marlies.  By the end of the 2012-’13 NHL regular-season, Gardiner was back up with the big club but often a healthy scratch.  I remember writing at the time that despite Carlyle’s apparent dissatisfaction with his play, I felt the Leafs would in fact need Gardiner at some point, and that proved true when the playoffs hit.  After some injuries and uneven play in Game 1, Carlyle inserted Gardiner into the lineup.  Against the Bruins, he played some inspired hockey at times.  As I’ve written before, there may have been a few too many “Lone Ranger” rushes for my liking and still a fair bit of skating in wide circles, but he seemed to be back to his old confident self.

Going into the Boston showdown, I wasn’t sure he could handle the physical Bruin forwards.  He had struggled at times around his own net during the regular season, coughing up the puck at bad times.  Those miscues aside, against ordinary opposition, he could usually skate away from trouble, using his instincts and speed to avoid being hemmed in. But again, Gardiner well for Toronto against a very good Boston side.  He was part of the reason the Leafs almost won that series.

He was on the ice for the Game 7 overtime marker, but it seemed to me that he had also played his way back into Carlyle's good books.  Which leaves me thinking that, all things being equal (and assuming Gardiner is one hundred per cent healthy, which he must be), he should be primed for a) a big season and b) lots of ice time this coming season.

In fact, while I’m not one for predictions (at least not taking them seriously), if I had to estimate Gardiner’s production and value this coming season, my guess is he will be a 15 to 20-goal, 55 to 60- point guy, which would be startlingly impactful for the Leafs.  I also think he will average huge minutes, and if healthy, log more ice time than any other defenseman but Phaneuf.  That means he will be on the second defense  pair most of the time, and also get a ton of power play time.

Gardiner has always struck me as a very confident young guy, raised to believe in himself and his abilities.  He was not in awe when it came to playing in the NHL, and is a rare bird when it comes to his skill level.

I’ve written here in the past about ways he will need to improve in his own zone, and Carlyle is acutely aware of any deficiencies in the young man’s defensive game. (Are there any young defensemen that don’t have to improve their play in their own zone?)  But the kind of talent Gardiner has is not something that is easily found—or replaced.  So the Leafs will want to nurture what they already have.  At 23, Gardiner is on the cusp of what should be a brilliant NHL career. Good coaching should only help him be even better.

The Leafs have a lot of young defensemen in the system who seem to be within a year or two of being NHL-ready. Blacker, Finn, Rielly, Granberg and Percy are all looking for their opportunity.  All have significant  “potential”, especially young Rielly.

But Gardiner is already an NHL’er.  He is much more than a “prospect”.  He has shown he can play with the big boys.  And I think this is the season that he breaks through and becomes a household name in NHL circles.

Too optimistic? Let me know…

****

I've not been posting as much recently, but that has been my intention this summer.  (I have been working on a new project, which I hope I'll be able to chat about within the next few weeks.) But if you've missed some recent columns here, I invite you to check them out:


  • Carl Brewer's astonishing record of successful hockey comebacks
  • On Jonathan Bernier wanting the number-one goaltending job in Toronto (you may hear my teeth grinding as you read that piece...)

18 comments:

  1. Lots of hope for Jake, hopefully Carlyle can coach him into an offensive player who can also play good defence. He seemed much improved by the end of last season.

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  2. Like Reimer and Lupul, Gardiner seems to play amazingly well when he's healthy. I think everything depends on whether he can stay healthy. As I said here before - I think that injuries are more often than not a result of a player's style of play and being injury-prone is and should be considered a problem when assessing player's value. I think Lupul and Reimer may well be those 'injury-prone' players that need to be, so-to-say, 'backed up' as in the case of Bernier with Reimer. I really hope Gardines is not one of those guys. With a talent like that, with a coach like Carlyle and having graduated from Dallas Eikins's hockey program I think his ceiling is enormous.

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    1. Thanks leafdreamer. I haven't thought of Gardiner as being in that "injury-prone" category just yet, but I guess we'll see. He has an enormous skill set and seems to love to play, so the sky should be the limit...

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  3. I was sitting in the 200 level behind the Buffalo goal at the First Niagara Center on 4/3/12 and witnessed this magical goal by Jake Gardiner.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJTSOCxZ_RQ&feature=player_detailpage

    I was anticipating a huge 2112-13 season for Gardiner after his breakout rookie effort. The link below shows all his rookie goals.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Toa_KvKJ0sA&feature=player_detailpage

    Hopefully the post concussion Gardiner is fully healed and that his playoff performance is a precursor of the player that we will see this season.

    Nonis has been criticized for not strengthening the defense but if Gardiner is able to recapture and improve upon his rookie effort then the Leaf defense will be immensely improved. A second pairing of Franson-Gardiner would provide the Leafs with a strong top four and would ease the pressure on Phaneuf by eating minutes.

    I agree with you that Gardiner is gifted offensively and that he will will put up big numbers. If, as I anticipate, that he improves defensively under Carlyle then we will have a very special player who could be a Norris candidate down the road.

    Note: The Norris Trophy has been awarded 59 times since its inception in 1953-54. No Toronto Maple Leaf has ever won it.

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    1. Reading your last sentence, Pete Cam, I'm trying to think of Leaf defensemen who were even in the running for the Norris over the years. Maybe Carl Brewer and Tim Horton, because they were end-of-season All-Stars in the early '60s. I'm thinking Salming would have received consideration in the '70s. But generally speaking, we haven't had that type of D-man who is acknowledged as the very best.

      Are you thinking Gardiner may have that kind of potential?

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  4. Too optimistic.

    I am very excited for Gardiner and actually find the "needs to work in his own zone" stuff annoying as he is better in his own zone than plenty of players who got more time on the Leafs than him (Kostka, Holzer, and potentially Fraser comes to mind (for those wanting to compare Fraser and Gardiner, while Fraser is tougher around the net and may clear the crease more, Gardiner is SO much better at clearing the defensive zone that I think he'd still come out ahead). So I am a big Gardiner booster.

    That being said your prediction: "In fact, while I’m not one for predictions (at least not taking them seriously), if I had to estimate Gardiner’s production and value this coming season, my guess is he will be a 15 to 20-goal, 55 to 60- point guy, " is completely unrealistic. Now I fully realize how that sentence starts (that you don't like predictions or taking them too seriously) and I included it to show that I read it. That being said you ended on this quote "Too optimistic? Let me know…", so I felt the need to respond.

    here are the defenseman to score 15+goals AND 55+ points in the last full season:
    Erik Karlsson. End list.
    (http://hkref.com/tiny/4VfXO)

    Between lockouts here are the defenseman to do it and the number of times they did:
    Dan Boyle 3
    Mike Green 3
    Nicklas Lidstrom 3
    Lubomir Visnovsky 3
    Bryan McCabe 2
    Drew Doughty 1
    Erik Karlsson 1
    Andrei Markov 1
    Scott Niedermayer 1
    Dion Phaneuf 1
    Mathieu Schneider 1
    Sheldon Souray 1
    Mark Streit 1
    (http://hkref.com/tiny/zkOBM)

    (Also note that was using the low end of his prediction 15/55. Here it is the list with 20/60):
    Dan Boyle, Mike Green, and Sheldon Souray. All once. (http://hkref.com/tiny/JGT2B)

    So, yeah I think Gardiner is a great player, who already is "an offensive player who can also play good [sic] defence", but I think your optimism was excessive.

    Cheers

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    1. Hi BCapp- When I was thinking on my "prediction" (and this is hardly scientific, I well realize!), I went back to his first season and reflected on the number of times his shots from the point hit the post, or missed the net by a fraction of the inch when he had the goalie beaten. I honestly think he can score at least 15 goals a season, all things being equal. That may well be too optimistic, but playing with some gifted offensive players like Kessel and Lupul should help as help. Regardless, we agree he is a talented player with huge upside.

      On the defensive side of his game, I am not comparing him with other Leaf players, simply looking at things, based on my watching him play, that I believe he will need to improve on if he is to truly become an elite NHL defenseman and more than a one-way guy. He can clear the zone but in my eyes still needs to be harder on the puck at times and not as easily knocked off the play around his own net. Thanks BCapp.

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  5. There is no doubt in my mind that Gardiner has the potential for 15 - 20 goals and 55 - 60 points. He has a hard and accurate shot. He is an excellent passer. He should get top 4 minutes (20-25 a night). He should be the first option from the left side point on the power play. If he can play a full season healthy, all these factors add up to that type of season.

    As to the Norris, if he has that type of season and given the voter's penchant to vote offence first, I believe that he has the potential to be a candidate.

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  6. Breakout? I could see it. I liked the way Gardiner played with Franson in the playoffs. Perhaps that can become our second pairing. Perhaps Ranger and Fraser become our third pairing.

    I would be happy if we got just 35 points out of Gardiner this year and he became more defensively steady. We can wait a year or two for him to get into the 40-45 point range.

    One thing that does startle me is our number of left shooting defence. We need to trade John Michael Liles during the season and bring in a righty or eventually make a spot for the right shooting Jesse Blacker. Blacker should be ready in the next year or two.

    One final note: You may not know this, but in the dog days of summer there is a way to get your Leafs fix. You can re-watch all of CBC's Leafs games from last year streaming in decent quality right on your computer. CBC hasn't taken them down yet. I watched a game on Sunday while doing some paper work and it cheered me up.

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    1. I agree DP, Gardiner doesn't have to put up 50 points as long as he stays healthy and plays well at both ends of the ice....

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  7. Gardiner if healthy can, and I also think, will become one of the leagues best.
    If he's not dealt with patiently and things go south, I'm thinking Al Iafrate.
    I know Jake isn´t as "colorful" but there are similarities. Both very skilled, puck rushers (didn´t we love those end-to-enders?) and both sometimes soft on the puck. This past year I saw Gardiner almost beeing surprised at guys rushing at him wanting to steal the puck, he almost didn´t expect that to happen to him.

    That beeing said, we haven´t had one like him in a long time. Let's try to keep him around for awhile.

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    1. I have to believe Gardiner is an "untouchable", portuguese leaf. Opposing teams would be only too happy to try and pry him away, I'm sure....

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  8. Randy Carlyle won a Norris Trophy after the Leafs let him go.

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    1. Good catch, Anon. Maybe we can take credit...

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  9. I was thinking on your earlier comparison between Gardiner and a young Carl Brewer when I started watching some YouTube clips from late 50's/early 60's games (2 involving Chicago).

    One of those games involved a brawl that left both sides down 2 men and Brewer featured prominently with forays into the offensive zone that were less likely in that era, but for the 3-a-side they were playing at the time. I can see why you felt Carl reminded you of Jake.

    I agree that he is poised for a significant season (wonder if we shouldn't try to get him signed to a new deal before he has the kind of season you're projecting... kinda' doubt his agent would go for that, too).

    Gardiner sure has ice in his veins while playing in all situations, perhaps that's why he glides so well!

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    1. While they are certainly very different players, I do believe there is some Brewer in young Mr. Gardiner, InTimeFor62. (He could do a lot, lot worse...)

      We're getting closer to training camp by the day!

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  10. I am tempted to be skeptical of 55 - 60 points, Michael. Then again, the last time I doubted you (over the readiness of Reimer to take the reins in goal) you were proven prophetic in your confidence.

    The kid seems to have it all ready to be polished and enjoyed but I'm worried by our depth at D depriving him of the kind of support he deserves to really release the hounds. It's not even clear how or if we are going to re-sign Cody Franson. And while I genuinely hope for the sake of our Leafs that Nonis and Carlyle know plenty I don't know, I'm struggling to see defense being anything other than a weakness on our roster this year.

    Presumably they're lining him up with Ranger as an older head to shepherd him and let him join the rush but that leaves the question of whether Ranger is ready for the NHL again and how he'll play if he does. I've read conflicting reports as to whether Ranger's strength will be contributing to offense or defense, so I'm at a bit of a loss.

    If it's going to be Franson and Gardiner as our second pairing, which one will take responsibility for their own end?

    Truly, I hope you're right once again.

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    1. On any given day (especially in the summer!), KiwiLeaf, I'm tempted to be very hopeful or conversely, rather pessimistic about our defense corps. I kind of go move with the wind. At times I like what I'm projecting; at other times I see plenty of weaknesses and, of course, the lack of (in my mind) a true high-end number-one defensemen.

      Maybe, as you suggest, Nonis and Carlyle know plenty we don't know. That could also mean they know there's still a lot of roster work yet to do...

      As for Gardiner, we don't "need" him to put up the kind of numbers I suggested are possible, but I do see that kind of potential. Thanks for visiting, Kiwi Leaf.

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