Young players, especially young players with eye-popping offensive skills, are always the subject of much discussion, especially in the Toronto market. They typically leave impatient fans wanting more. Yet we always have to remind ourselves that it usually takes time for most NHLers—even the gifted ones—to become solid all-around NHLers, players their coaches can trust.
Plenty of words have been shared about Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner in this space over the years, and rightfully so. In each their own way, they are highly talented performers. Gardiner can skate all night and moves with such ease, while Kadri has those hands and uncanny hockey instincts that help him find seams and empty spots on the ice—either for himself, or in finding open teammates.
Both are only 23, and still a long way away from being what they might be capable of becoming as professionals. Gardiner in particular, as a defensemen, needs more game action before we can make any declarations about his supposed ceiling. It’s easy to say he is skilled, which he so obviously is, but is there a lot more in that cupboard? Can he be more than tantalizing “potential”?
Last season, I thought Kadri, many nights, was the most dangerous Leaf on the ice. Kessel, of course, is an almost constant threat but I thought Kadri was right there with him. He made his wingers—regardless of who he played with—a lot better in 2012-'13.
Yet this season, while the former London Knight’s offensive numbers are fine (pretty good, in fact), I just don’t have the same feeling when I watch him play. He still has that nasty streak (on the edge I like, over the edge—like when he takes liberties with opposing players—I don’t) and can be a very determined player, but when I watch him I don’t feel we are always getting the 200 foot player we need to see all the time.
As for Gardiner, again, his “numbers” are fine. He’s something like a minus 4 (I think Kadri is minus 9), which is OK. There is a lot more to assessing someone’s game than their plus/minus stats.
But I guess I was expecting something a bit more from Gardiner this season by now. Offensively he has put up some points, but it’s his still lacking (at least in my mind) defensive game that confounds me. Yes he can skate like the wind and he can move the puck—traits that are very important for any defenseman. Plenty of defenseman don’t skate particularly well or move the puck with authority.
But when it comes to other parts of his game—skating in wide circles when he needs to stop and be hard on the play, or how he matches up against physical forwards on the forecheck—I’m not sure he has progressed enough.
Some of that is simply, I’m sure, a question of time and experience. But I also sense that I’m seeing, as with Kadri, a bit of an attitude that, “this is how I play; take it or leave it”.
Let me add something: I can’t break down the Leafs’ defensive issues (possession, shots on goal against, giveaways, etc.) like the technical experts can. Those trained observers can do that beautifully for us.
I just know that if Phaneuf is playing as well as everyone says he is (and I’m among those who find little fault in a guy who plays about 25 minutes a night against the other team’s best forwards and is a plus 20) and Rielly is a phenom, then someone must not be doing their job, right?
If we are giving the puck away in our own zone, if we are giving up so many shots and way too many quality scoring opportunities for the other side, who is not doing their job along our blueline? (It’s like when I hear NBA guys talk and say, “we have to work harder out there”. Well, there’s only five guys on the floor at one time and maybe eight who play any real minutes most nights. So let’s be specific: do you mean you have to work harder, or that the other seven guys have to?)
For me, it’s the same issue here. If Phaneuf is playing at an elite level, and Gunnarsson is not completely dragging him down, and Rielly is having a fantastic rookie season, then where is the issue? Is it all Franson? Aren’t we all happy with Tim Gleason?
So where indeed does Gardiner fit in this discussion?
As I mentioned in a recent post, it’s not just on our defensemen. Forwards are a major part of “team defense”. That’s always been the case in hockey. Thus my mention of Kadri who, as the second-line center, has a dual role of putting up points but also preventing some pretty good players on the other team from scoring on any given night.
Hey, the Leafs are still in very good shape when it comes to the current standings and the playoff picture. There’s zero reason they can’t continue to put up points in the standings and as I keep saying, make noise in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.
But unless a lot of observers are just flat out wrong, can this team sustain their current placement if they keep struggling with the simple notion of “defensive hockey” and whatever system Carlyle is asking them to play? They aren’t being asked to split the atom (to be honest, I don't even know what an atom is, or if they can be split, but the reference has been around seemingly forever…), after all, just play good, solid defense.
And from my perspective, if we are going to look for individual improvement, it strikes me as fair to suggest that two of our 'young veterans', Kadri and Gardiner, are two of the Leafs that need to play with more commitment and determination as the hockey gets serious the rest of the regular season and then into the playoffs.
Of course it’s a team game, and everyone on this roster, well beyond Kadri and Gardiner, need to do their job consistently if the Leafs look to be serious players in the Conference. (Yes, I can name much more experienced players who we need to see more from, like Clarkson, but that’s a post for another day.)
Maybe my standards for and expectations of these two whiz kids are unfairly high. I don’t know. As I write this, the trade deadline is hours away. I’m hardly thinking that they will be traded—or should be.
But I believe they have more to give, and it’s not all about their supposedly crappy and out of touch coach. Unless Gardiner is going to become (and he might, who knows?) Scott Niedermayer, Ray Bourque or Paul Coffey, then he needs to be better at the things defensemen need to be good at.
If Kadri wants to get paid the star money that he thinks he deserves, then we need to see him be a difference-maker almost every night—at both ends of the ice.
With talent comes, fair nor not, high expectations. There is still plenty of time for these youngsters, but in today’s NHL, the clock is already slowly ticking….