Most VLM commentators here over the years have been very positive about what Jake Gardiner brings to the Leafs. We all recognize that he can skate, moves the puck well, contributes points from the back end and can play significant minutes if needed. He is a confident young player and, at the age of 24, surely has his best years ahead of him.
Most NHL defensemen mature a bit later (late 20s, in this day and age?) than most forwards. Gardiner is still well shy of the 300 game plateau, a marker than many in the “business” believe is a demarcation point when it comes to truly assessing what a defenseman will be at this level.
Like many of you, I’m loathe to see a team give up on a young defenseman—especially one with obvious talent. Sometimes those players are traded away and they blossom elsewhere, though we can’t really say that has happened to the Leafs lately.
But here we sit, very early in the new NHL season. Four games in, Gardiner has been a healthy scratch twice already. I know, in this market, we are prone to over-react to every little thing but given that the organization signed Gardiner to a significant long-term contract in the off-season, this seems at odds with the emphasis on youth and skill that Shanahan has brought to town.
The decision by Carlyle to sit Gardiner can be debated, and it will be, especially in Leafland. It may simply be that the coaching staff (my sense is the new assistant coaches were part of this decision; this isn’t just Carlyle) believes Gardiner had been the least effective Leaf rearguard in the first couple of games, and they wanted to get Franson in the lineup once he was healthy.
Someone has to sit, right?
Everyone agrees Percy, though more difficult days are likely ahead for the rookie, has earned his time thus far. Phaneuf is not in this discussion. Rielly could have been a consideration, but I doubt they would make that move with the sophomore defenseman. Polak has played key minutes thus far, and provides the defense-first approach Carlyle likes. Robidas hasn’t been perfect but is still getting healthy and I think the coaching staff want him to be that experienced blueline leader. So Gardiner was the odd man out.
The decision does beg the question, however, as to whether something else is afoot. While we might tend to think otherwise, the fact that Gardiner has signed a deal at what some may feel is a reasonable contract number does not preclude the possibility that the Leafs could in fact deal him.
But again, is this just Carlyle sending the proverbial “message” to the still young Leaf defenseman? In two months, this may all be forgotten and Gardiner may be playing exactly the way Leaf fans—and Carlyle—hope he can.
Besides the need to be harder on the puck around his own net and in the corners, the one issue I have raised here with Gardiner is “coachability”, as in: is he a player that will take input from his coaches seriously? Or is he someone who likes to do what he does best, which is skating and moving the puck?
It seems like every year, almost every team, before the trade deadline, is either looking for a shutdown defenseman or a puck-moving D-man. Gardiner not a shutdown guy but is certainly someone with offensive skills.
I’m still not sure Rielly’s presence mean we can’t have another puck-moving defenseman, as some have suggested. But I do wonder if Carlyle has already grown frustrated with Gardiner—again.
In your view, should Gardiner be in the lineup? If so, who should be sitting? Is Carlyle just trying to get Gardiner going, or is there more at play here?
Realistically, we’re going to need more than the seven defensemen we have on the roster right now, because of injuries and the natural ebb and flow of a long NHL season. But just a few games into the campaign, with the Leafs' record at two wins and two losses, there are questions already.