Just as it was no doubt prudent not to gaze too far ahead when the Leafs were on a roll, we should likely not go overboard in thinking that the sky is falling after two rather uninspired efforts against Carolina and Philadelphia. It wasn’t realistic to expect the Leafs to continue their winning ways—especially given that they had slid into some of their old, familiar habits of late.
A road trip is upon us, and that will tell us a lot more about who the Leafs are—and can be.
Those who have followed my musings here at VLM over the years know that I have often written about my frustration at the very notion of trading away talented young players—defensemen in particular. Over the decades that I’ve followed the club, the Leafs have had their fair share of situations where a young players has been dealt and blossomed somewhere else. (The list includes Jim Dorey, Gary Nylund, Jim Benning and Al Iafrate, among others. That's a great old Dan Baliotti photo of Dorey, right.) Sometimes it was a question of rushing a young player too soon; on other occasions injuries were an issue.
So in reflecting on today’s subject, I’ve been sort of putting off making any kind of definitive statement when it comes to Jake Gardiner. This is a question I first raised a few weeks ago.
I don’t need to go over the full history again. I’ll just re-state what we all know: Gardiner was the pleasant (and unexpected) surprise arising from the Beauchemin-Lupul trade a few seasons back. He impressed us all from the get go with his skating and skill.
Recognizing that he has not played 300 games in the NHL (the level many NHL coaches and other experts suggest is the fair time to start really assessing a young defenseman), it strikes me that Gardiner is a player the Leafs can afford to move.
I understand that he is a popular Leaf, and that many feel his ceiling is very high. But I just believe he should be further ahead of the curve by now. And if the Leafs wait too much longer to move him, I wonder if the return will be what it might have been.
Why the focus on Gardiner, when the team has a range of other issues, including on the blueline? Well, while he seems to pass the ‘analytics’ tests, I see a young player who may not be as coachable as I’d like to see. The offensive prowess he demonstrated early on seems to have hit a plateau. While all defensemen make mistakes, I find he makes the same kind of mistakes too often. I don’t know if he will ever become a physical player—which is fine, if he was otherwise sound and consistent in his own zone. But he loses too many puck battles in the corners and around his net. And I wonder if he is as determined a player in his own zone as he needs to be.
Is Gardiner a player who will do everything he needs to, to get better? I don’t know. Will Gardiner mature and become a better defender with experience? Quite possibly. Is it foolhardy to trade a young, talented defensemen that the Leafs have already signed to a significant contract? Maybe.
But I also wonder if the Leafs could acquire the kind of emerging forward that may help put them over the top, if they were prepared to move Gardiner while so many seem to see him as having a high-end future.
To be clear, I don’t make this suggestion because the Leafs already have Rielly. I’ve long said I have no problem with employing two, young, offensively minded puck-moving defensemen. And I don’t say this because the Leafs are so talented on the blueline. I think the Leafs are OK on the back end, but need to be a lot better.
That said, having Rielly on board does provide the Leafs with a player who may be a star defenseman some day. Phaneuf still provides quality minutes most nights. Franson seems to be in the midst of a bit of a renaissance. And while Robidas likely won’t be here in two years, we should have NHL capable depth in players like Polak, Percy and others now plying their trade with the Marlies.
In short, I think the Leafs could live without Gardiner. Few players are irreplaceable, and he is not—especially if Toronto received something noteworthy in return.
This won’t be a popular suggestion, I realize. But I think it’s time for the Leafs to consider something they would not have even contemplated not that long ago.