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I love Jake Gardiner, but…..

Let me be clear:  I have not missed what everyone is seeing in young Jake Gardiner. Do I need to list his many attributes?  There’s that fluid, seemingly effortless skating style—with real speed.  We’ve all noticed his  “smarts”, his vision and that even temperament, too, along with his ability to stay cool under pressure.

Dies this guy even know what league he is in?

That said, as much as I love what this youngster brings to a team that in so many ways needs just what he can deliver (and he should only get better, eh?)  I guess I see things differently from Leaf management—and most Leaf faithful.

I still want him playing with the Marlies.

Hey, it’s just one person’s opinion.  I’m guessing most (all?) of you will dismiss it.  It’s just that I too often see little things, from a defensive perspective that, well, make me wince just a bit.

I’m not blaming him for the two goals he was on for at even strength on Monday night.  The first saw Komisarek rush to the side-boards only to have Hartnell get his shot off before Gardiner could shut him down.  The other saw Liles jump into the play in the Flyers end, and then Gardiner wasn’t able to get back in time to prevent Jagr from his third breakaway (and second goal) of the night. (I guess we thought Jagr was still playing in Russia…)

Hey. I’m sure lots of NHL defensemen would not have been able to prevent either of those plays from ending up in goals.  My observation is simply this:  Toronto has 7 other defensemen in the system (Franson upstairs and Aulie in the minors) who already have ample NHL experience—all of whom have demonstrated they can play capably at the NHL level. (Hell, Franson was paired with Weber in the playoffs against Detroit, wasn’t he?)

Does Gardiner bring something different?  In a sense, yes.  But part of the attraction we feel toward Gardiner is that he is indeed young and he has impressed the heck out of us by making the Leafs out of training camp, coming out of nowhere, in a sense.  His calm presence on the ice and the above-mentioned skills (rare for such a young player just out of college) make him a guy you want to see here for a long time, for sure.

So it’s a great storyline, and we all really like the story and want a happy ending.

But is his skill set that much better than Liles, who also brings offense and puck-moving ability (remember, he is our Kabby replacement)?  And what about Franson, who has to have feel like he has been kicked in the stomach, starting the season in the press box, having his new coach ticked at him because he dared to speak out, and then back in the press box when he didn’t play stunningly well in the games he did play (after the coach basically said, “You better play well now, or you’re back upstairs…)

Let me make a final observation.  This is the early stage of the NHL season.  Yes, it’s more intense than pre-season, but this is nowhere near what it would/will be like come April if the Leafs make the playoffs.  I wonder how Gardiner will handle that kind of physical, tough and much more intense play.  There is no way there will be as much “time and space” when the games take on more meaning later in the season and in the spring.

I’m a solitary voice in the wilderness on this one, I suspect.  Some thought he may be sent down after his short stay in the press box, but he has been in the line-up since  and looks to be here to stay.  I don’t think he is going anywhere.

I will gladly acknowledge I was wrong if he plays as well as everyone else thinks he is now, throughout the rest of the season.

But I reserve the right to raise this issue again, if things don’t work out as smoothly as we’d all like to see.


Some post-game thoughts from the Philly loss...

  • People who follow this site know I have been, for a long time, encouraging patience with—and support—for The Monster.  Like most observers, I was happy to see him make some big saves and play well in Philly.  In the same breath, one thing I would like to see is Gustavsson play his best hockey in the last period, when the game is still on the line.  That’s one of the things I’ve appreciated about Reimer in his still very young career.  Yes, he will allow some iffy goals but so often seems to make big saves in the third period to keep the Leafs in it. Gustavsson made some great saves but still gave up 4 goals on only 30 shots.  
  • I like the idea of Kadri and Frattin playing together as a kind of “kid line”.  They aren’t scoring much, but they did create the second Leaf goal and you have to love it when two Leafs are in the crease when a goal is scored.  Kadri again flashed some moves and Frattin has that speed.   Frattin almost pulled the Leafs even off a beauty Kadri feed at one point early in the third.  When Frattin gets one, more should follow.  
  • Grabovski now has 1 assist in 8 games.  For a center, that’s not good, no matter how we try to cover it up. I wonder if people see this as a function of how he is playing, or the fact that Kulemin and MacArthur have not played the way they did last season (at least not yet)?
  • Gunnarsson had only the fourth highest on-ice total of all Leaf defensemen.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense for me, but I’m not a coach, clearly.
  • Bozak and Connolly should be back soon (Connolly for sure on Thursday?) which will give us a better idea in the next couple of weeks, once Connolly settles in, where we are up the middle.
  • Do you think Giroux could find a spot in the Leaf line-up? 
  • I don't know how he will do in six months after a gruelling NHL schedule, but hands up, those who thought Jagr would have this kind of impact already in his return to the league?
  • It’s early (I keep saying that) but somehow the special teams have to be better.  Almost every night we are giving up power-play goals and not doing enough to overcome that when we have the man advantage.

Bottom line, I like the fact that the Leafs are playing hard and have been in every game except at the end in Boston.  But despite their good early-season record, I think we can all see some loose play.  None of us expects them to be perfect.  It’s a game of mistakes and missed assignments.  If it weren’t, it would be an awfully dull sport.

But to contend (especially as the schedule gets tougher after a 5-game home stand to provide a soft cushion to open the season) we will need to see that effort right across the board, from every player, pretty much every night—and improved special teams.

Otherwise, the playoffs are far from a guarantee, despite another nice start to the regular season.


  1. Well I stand by my comments of a week ago. The Leafs won't be coming back in the third period against good teams. They got away with sloppy play and poor defensive coverage (something that has seemed to plague the leafs for years) early against marginal teams but the elite teams will bury you every time. I thought the game wasn't too bad but they got down and you never really got the sense they were going to come back. There just isn't enough offensive firepower to make teams fear the Leaf attack.

    Gardiner is all right, I wouldn't be adverse to seeing him in the minors but I doubt if Burke will send him down. If they are going to keep him up he should be on the first powerplay unit with Phanuef. They should be playing the bejezzus out of him because lets face our so called depth at d has been far better on paper than on the ice for the 3rd straight year. The powerplay was a vital reason in the loss tonight as was the penalty kill. Like you said Michael it is early but the signs are there, the special teams are still the Leafs main downfall.

    Gustavsson was all right tonight, not great but as a back up he could be servicable in 25-30 games. He was not the reason they lost tonight. Besides the not special teams, this team is suffering from a serious lack of secondary scoring. Kulemin (my personal favourite) is struggling and Macarthur has not been good at all this year. Kulemin will come out of it, but I am starting to think maybe Macarthur had his career year last year. He is not bad but again seems to me to be in that too good to be a third liner, but not good enough to be a consistent second liner.

    The Leafs have a sound base to build on but need to fix some glaring holes. I stated them more than a few times what those holes are and nothing I have seen yet suggests that I am wrong. I still see them just coming up short barring a trade for an impact centerman (and no i don't think Connolly is that guy).

    Love the idea of a kid line with Frattin and Kadri on the wings and Bozak at center. I really think they could do some damage.

  2. Very good observations as usual Wilbur. I think a lot of us would agree that the Leafs have won at times this season despite some glaring issues- defensive zone coverage and secondary scoring, to be sure...not to mention the achilles heel represented by our special teams.

    And yes, the second line needs to get untracked.

    While Monster isn't exactly stealing the job away from Reimer, I think he can contribute and hopefully not just in a "mop-up" capacity. Whether he gets those 25-30 games you mention, I don't know, but we need two guys who can play capably at this level.

    I, too, would like to see a 10-game stretch (well, 5 at least) with Bozak between the other two kids to see if they have some chemistry...

  3. Well, I'm one of those who think Gardiner hasn't shown why he should be sent down, yet. Franson hasn't played any better - in fact, I'd say he's played noticeably worse - and I expect that when the going gets tougher, he'll have upped his game. I'd say it was as much the forwards not shutting down a passing lane that sprang Jagr at least once as it was Gardiner's position. And much as I like Aulie, would he really be an improvement? I'm more concerned by Schenn's slow start - he does seem to be labouring under the weight of that contract.
    I don't think this loss can be hung on Gustavsson, either. He made some great saves, and got beaten on two breakaways that few would have stopped. But, as Wilbur says, the second line just hasn't found their rhythm. To my eyes, it seems as if they're trying to duplicate last year, instead of just playing in the moment, if you know what I mean. But I agree about that "kid" line. Kadri and Frattin look good to me.
    The bottom line, though, is that like last year, we'll rise or fall on the play of our special teams. Prognosis so far: not good!

  4. Gerund O'...I can't say I disagree on Gardiner. It's not that I think he can't play here, or "deserves" to be sent down. I mostly wish he had started in the AHL and worked his way here, when injuries or poor performance from more veteran players on the depth chart created a natural opportunity- without messing up team harmony.

    I'm wondering about Luke as well. I mean yes, he got a nice contract, but they are not expecting him to be Bobby Orr, just be exactly what he was last season. He should be OK, one would think.

    I really like your point on the Grabbo line and I sense a lot of us like the "kid line" notion.

    Special teams...yikes. But it's early (though I can only say that for so long...)

  5. For me, the big question is what the hell do we with Stecksy (rhymes with sexy) when Bozak and Connolly return? I actually thought and think that Bozak had and could have as much effect on the 1st line as he would on the 3rd between Frattin and Kadri- Steckel with Brown and ? will be what we've been missing as well- a dangerous, effective 4th line. We're going to need to move a center sooner or later if only to make space for Colborne. (#waiveColtonOrr). I'm very confident that MGK will start racking up points soon and their off-season conditioning will prove out. They already have 8 combined and that was with Grabbo getting rocked by Neil in the pre-season and McGerk missing the first two.
    Gardiner can stay up or go down to me- of much more concern is our overall D. I think Aulie should be brought up or Holzer to send a nice, clear message that they have to start playing at the $22M rate we're presently paying them, and that includes our beloved Luke.

  6. Michael L., I was having eerily similar thoughts about Gardiner prior to reading today’s article. Is this a case of like-minded being drawn to a site or is this site getting into my head? Does this not echo back to the days of Jim Benning, Bob McGill and Fred Boimistruck? I know, Gardiner is older, and as Wilson points out, well-coached and ready, but still, patience is important in developing elite athletes. McGill turned out to be a good player, however I always thought that Benning and Boimistruck’s careers were not well served by being rushed. From a coaching and management perspective, with suit wearing heads on or not far from the chopping block, the Leafs have to produce now. This urgency can cloud the necessary vision required for a long view. My Leaf team could include Franson and Lashoff with Gardiner and Aulie on the Marlies. I do not think that fast-tracking Gardiner will damage his potential, however I am on the fence, leaning toward the Marlies on this question. If there is any friction with Franson, it is serving no one. Above all, Franson should not be punished for being eager to perform. Gustavsson deserves credit. He is under extreme pressure and delivered a solid, improved performance. His positioning was much better and from those fundamentals his confidence improved. I imagine the goaltending coaches will be looking at the breakaways to check his timing. From a goaltender’s perspective, the game was not that winnable anyway, possible but unlikely. Kid line? Yeah! Imagine Colborne eventually centering Frattin and Kadri! Insightful high quality posts, as usual, Wilbur and Gerund O’.

  7. Kid K., I agree, roster decisions will have to revolve around Steckel, especially because of his face-off prowess on penalty kills, which on many occasions is annihilating opposing teams power plays.

  8. I also love Jake Gardiner but... will I love him when this season is 75 games deep and teams are gearing up for the playoffs? Perhaps my lack of faith in the NCAA schedule is misguided but I don't think that transition is easy for anyone. I stand by my idea that a 70+ game NHL rookie season for Gardiner is going to wear him down and hurt him long term.

    I also strongly believe we need to give Franson a better shake out there. Now I'm not pleased with his acting out in the media either, though I do think it was over blown, but he honestly deserves more than 2 games coming out of the press box before we can draw any reasonable conclusions about this guy. As a veteran coming in from another team why was he not granted the clemency other Leaf vets have been shown by Burke and Wilson, quite recently I'll add, when outperformed by kids in the preseason?

    At a minimum the Leafs need to get Jake's minutes under control. 20+ a night is ridiculous in my eyes for a young, slight kid like Gardiner. He needs to concentrate on being perfect for 16/17 sheltered minutes a night before he's tossed into top 4 minutes, even if he's earned it short term. Again my focus is on where he'll be in terms of learning and growth at Game 75 and beyond, not Game 15.

    I'm just worried people in the Leaf's organization are losing grasp of Jake's long term development into the best player he can be. If he's not going to be sent down to the Marlies then perhaps I can start hoping for a 'Kaberle' tailored approach from back in 98-99'. From what I remember Kabby played just under sixty games in the NHL, spending little to no time in the AHL and was scratched about 20 times spread across the season and not necessarily for poor play. Michael I'm sure you have a better memory of what I'm talking about as I was pretty young at the time but a rookie Kaberle/ rookie Gardiner comparison seems to draw some interesting parallels at face value.

    And if at the end of it all Jake Gardiner turned into another Kaberle for the Leafs, well then wouldn't that be something..

  9. KidK...I, too, like the notion of strong 4th line. Steckel would obviously be able to anchor that unit. As for the "second line", we all appreciate what they can do and you may well be right, that patience is the only thing fans need. (I am a bit concerned that MacArthur has been just OK...) As for Schenn, I think we are all wondering. But he, too, may be fine with time and patience.

    Bobby C. I know it's history, but, like you, I also struggle to let go of earlier Leaf decisions to rush players, and Benning et al was a classic example of just that. I always thought all three guys would have been s much better off by starting in the minors and earning their time, rather than being relied on right away.

    Colborne centring the other kids is another intriguing thought. Whether it's him or Bozak, there are some young guns ready to contribute and maybe even break out.

    Let me second your comment about Wilbur and Gerund O' (and other tremendous posters here). I very much appreciate that this site is a place where Leaf fans can offer thoughtful and insightful opinions. That's what I was hoping would evolve when I started VLM back in September '09.

  10. Ben, that's very well said. So many good points in your post. I may be proven quite wrong, but I just see no need to rush Gardiner when we have so many defensemen on the depth chart with NHL experience. And I concur that we have barely given Franson a chance.

    You are quite right about Kaberle, who was brought along so well by Quinn in his rookie season when Kabby, like young Jake, seemed to come out of nowhere. Kaberle struggled against physical teams but had that great vision and passing ability. Thanks for a great post.

  11. I had to rewatch the last Jagr goal last night to see why Gardiner got exposed so bad. After watching it a couple of times it hit me, that goal was in no way Gardiners fault. Liles carried the puck in deep and stayed low fore checking. No problem with that, they were down a goal and needed to score so he was pressing. There was even a winger backing him up.

    Then the breakdown happens, the winger filling in for Liles goes for a line change, the guy who comes off the bench doesn't realize he is the last guy back filling in for Liles who is still down deep. Instead he comes off the bench and goes all the way across the ice to pressure the puck along the side boards leaving the entire opposite side uncovered. Gardiner was actually in good shape but his forward filling in for the offside dman completely blew his coverage.

    This is where I have problems with the Leaf coaching staff. This was simply a player not being aware enough as to what was actually happening. I know it is a one goal game, but this simple breakdown cost thema goal and any chance of a comeback. The player being prepared and aware is the coaching staff's job and in this case it didn't happen. Now I don't know if that winger was pulled aside and instructed today or last night, but I really doubt it. This is just a microcosim of the bad defensive coverage that has plagued these guys for years. That system breakdown has got to fall on the coaches shoulders.

    It still wouldn't hurt my feelings to see Gardiner go down but clearly right now he is the third best dman on the team behind Phanuef and Gunnarsson. I know the Leafs have rushed guys in the past, but in this case I think he can play and thrive. I know we have a lot of Dmen on the depth chart but really in my mind Gardiner is in the top 3 on the entire roster and he deserves to play.

    To be completely honest, I just want our best players to play every night and that means no Rosehill or Orr. I would much rather see a third line of Colbourne, Frattin and Kadri(that was an excellent suggestion) with a fourth line of Bozak, Brown and Stekel.

  12. Willbur-
    The best part of a Kadri/Frattin/Colborne line is that we'll be able to call them the KFC line.....

  13. That's awesome KidK. In that lines honor the first time they play together I'm getting a bucket of chicken.