Custom Search

Why I wish Jake Gardiner had simply started the season with the Marlies

Let’s start by stating the obvious:  I saw what everyone else witnessed during the “pre-season”.  Young Jake Gardiner showed that, if talent and skating ability was all it took to be an NHL defenseman, he is ready—right now.

The thing is, though, unless you’re in that rare, rare strata of young defensemen/players (Bobby Orr, Dennis Potvin, Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger—all Hall-of-Famers and easily so…) time learning the professional game at the minor-league level can only help, especially, I would think, after a collegiate career.  It certainly never hurts.  (While people can certain disagree, I’d be pleased to be made aware of one example where a young player was harmed by playing in the AHL…)

Now, just two games into the regular season, we have a young, experienced NHL-caliber defenseman (Cody Franson) cooling his heels up in the press box.  No problem, on the one hand.  It’s merely a sign of the heretofore unavailable and unaccustomed depth that the Maple Leafs have accumulated on their current blueline.

Until injuries hit, it’s a busy parking lot, for sure.  We have Franson sitting and Keith Aulie already biding his time with the Marlies.

Again, this is all good, in many ways.  On the one hand, guys need to fight to keep their jobs.  The bar is higher in Toronto now than it has been the past half dozen years and players have to perform well to keep their jobs.  That’s understood.

But at the same time, there are residual issues—and possible collateral damage, when you make certain unnecessary personnel decisions.

I can’t delve into Franson’s psyche, but I’m sure he did not arrive here thinking he was competing to be the team’s 7th or 8th defensemen.  I mean, as self-impressed as we all tend to be in Leaf-urbia when the team adds players and looks a bit better, this was not exactly the 1976-'79 Hab defense here in Toronto last season.  (Lapointe, Robinson and Savard, ably supported by many other fine defensemen like Nyrop, Engblom, Chartraw and others in those years, as I recall...)

Nor is it this year.  (Witness the last 15 worse-than-sloppy minutes against a very weak Ottawa side this past Saturday night.  What would we be talking about this long “off-week” if the Sens had tied that one up on Saturday night? Yikes...)

And no,  I also cannot begin to gauge what Aulie is thinking.  The guy was hardly (to me, at least) terrible in the pre-season.  And I have a hard time believing that a player with his background, who has had to earn his spurs all along the way, needed to be dropped just because someone else showed up with a bit more offensive flair.

But again, I’m not a General Manager or NHL coach, and those guys get paid a lot to make these decisions.  But it doesn’t mean that they are always right, either.

To be clear, I have no issue whatsoever with Jake Gardiner.  He’s had his moments in the first two games, and one would think that while he will take steps back from time to time, he seems to have the obvious smarts and skill set (and attitude, it would appear) to progress well and have a solid (if not more) NHL career.

And I said as much before the decision was made to keep him (click to see that earlier post).  I felt quite strongly he should start the season with the Marlies and build—and fully earn—his way up.

That way, once he was called up, once he did “make it”, he would not be going back down.  That’s something that can take a toll of a young guy.  We’ve seen that before in Toronto.  We rush guys into the line-up when they look good, then throw them on the trash heap at the first sign of trouble.  How does that help a young player's confidence- or development?

What’s the hurry?  Especially now, with the team's depth on the blueline.

Not that it’s the end of the world when a young player (like we often see in baseball) has to go back down, but why create the yo-yo effect when it’s just not necessary?

To me, the Leafs have messed up the Kadri thing big time.  Of course I could well be proven very wrong, but I just think they have handled that one all wrong for all the reasons I have stated many times here on different occasions.  (And now we’re told Kadri may spend at least the first few games of his return from injury with the Marlies.  How many stints does he need there?  If this was Lupul or Kessel, they wouldn’t be assigned to the Marlies when they came back from injury.  Is Kadri an NHL player or not?…)

And I may be proven just as wrong about their handling of young Gardiner.

Hey, he may score a hat trick in the next few games and never see the Marlies.  But I just sense that, for his long-term confidence and long-term development, he should have started with the Marlies, spent time with Eakins and company, and then moved into the penthouse—for good.

How could that have hurt?  I know people will say, “well, he was their best defensemen in the exhibition games.  You have to play your best players…”

But how do we know that he is, based on a few exhibition games, when the opposition is nowhere near what it will be in the regular season in terms of personnel or intensity (much less the playoffs)?

I look at Carl Gunnarsson and I don’t want to hear that he may be the next to take a turn sitting.  The guy has played international hockey, he has plenty of NHL experience now. In my eyes, the guy is a possible star-in-the-making.  And he's just entering his prime as a defenseman.

If I read that he may sit or head down to the Marlies, well, for me, that’s just crazy.  (You know it won’t be Schenn, Phaneuf, Komisarek or Liles  sitting, so if Franson now has to “get back” into the line-up who goes?  Better not be Gunnarsson.

If it’s Gardiner, then why do we have a young guy with his talent sitting upstairs watching other people play the game, when he could be gaining invaluable experience playing lots of minutes with the Marlies?

To me, the Leafs have a nice puzzle in place, but have put a few of the pieces in the wrong place.

And Gardiner is one of them.


  1. Michael-
    1. The "keep him" link is busted.
    2. I pretty much agree with you, BUT- I'm now very eager to see how Franson, and Aulie as well, play when they get their chance to shine and shrug off the demotions, whether to the press box or the Marlies. BB now has an AHL team he can trust completely with his prospects, and I suspect we should get used to these things happening over the next few years.

  2. Thanks for that KidK- all fixed!! (and we'll see how things go with Aulie and Franson, if and when they get their shot...)

  3. I agree and disagree on some of the points you've made Michael. Did I think it was a mistake putting Gardiner on the opening night roster? No. He had a taste of the Marlies last year, and now he is getting a taste of the NHL. This is an incredible learning experience for Gardiner. He probably realizes that he isn't playing the way he wants to play, that he is hesitant, and probably experiencing a little "hockey culture shock" in terms of how the game is played. Is that detrimental? I don't believe so, I believe it is a learned experience where he was placed outside his comfort zone, and is developing cognitively because of it.

    Do I believe he should be sent down? Yes. I would hope soon too, because once he goes down, and he is paired up with guys like Aulie or Blacker, he will dominate. Yes, he will have to handle the mental anguish of being sent down, but it is all based on how the experience is facilitated by Brian Burke and Co. If they frame it positively, verbalize the good things they have seen, and some areas they want him to work on, and then re-emphasize their confidence in him, his experience in the AHL will be a confidence builder, and in no way "harmful" as you've stated.

    But I do have to agree with your opinion on how the Leafs have handled Kadri. There is all this lolligagging around Leafs Nation of whether he is a full time NHLer or not. We saw him play well last year during his second stint, and during camp this year, all good indications that he is on the right track. But in reality, he hasn't proven anything on a consistent basis, and guess what? It isn't easy to make the Toronto Maple Leafs. I understand your point about how demotions can effect a players pysche, but I think your reading into it a little too much. We have all seen the same things he needs to work on (strength, puck possession, making good decisions, and maybe even faceoffs eventually?) The Leafs want him to be a star, an impact player, and we have seen examples around the league (Josh Bailey) where teams rush young players that they think can be stars on their team because they were stars in junior. Let players like Kadri earn their keep, then they will be more greatful, less ignorant, intelligent hockey players.

    Gardiner needs a dose of reality, and it is Burke's responsibility to make sure he looks at it in the positive light.

    Side note, if the Leafs want guys like Aulie and Gardiner in their line up, they need to move some bodies. I like Gunnar too, but who would you move instead of him? Komi? Franson? Lashoff? I'd prefer moving those three to Gunnar, but ohhh the politics.

    Sorry for the long rant.

  4. Couldn't agree with you more! I think that Gardiner should go down, and if and when an injury occurs, Aulie or Gardiner (or Lashoff, Holzer, or Blacker) should be called up depending on Leafs needs and performance with the Marlies.

    I also agree with you about Gunnarson's quality and potential. A friend tells me that Bozak and Gunnarson are rumoured to be part of a potential trade, (maybe nonsense, not sure of the source). I would hate to see Gunnarson go after 1 1/2 seasons with the Leafs. He's not even 25 yet for goodness sakes!

  5. Not a rant at all, Jack, I think you make valid points. On Gardiner, I'm just a fan of a guy being fully "ripe", then never having to see the minors again (like Larry Robinson in the early '70s with Montreal, though Rod Langway later that decade did go back down, as I recall, and both of course went on to HOF careers!)

    On Kadri, I agree he has not really proven but I just don't like all the management talk (out loud) for the last two years. One day they are projecting him as a first-line centre, next day he needs to get stronger and not turn the puck over. (And suddenly he's a third-line winger...) You can't play if you're worrying all the time. I wish they'd simply let him play, I guess, and learn from his mistakes- rather than worry about a demotion or a seat on the bench.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Dave. I'm mildly concerned about the Gunnar rumours. Not that the Leafs should have many (if any) guys who are so indispensable that they are "untouchable", but I'm not a fan of moving quality U25 d-men with skills and smarts.

    As for Gardiner, we all recognize he will play here, whether he stays now or goes back to the Marlies for a bit. I just would have preferred he start with them...

  7. I see the problem as related to the enormously pressurized situation of managing and coaching frequently underperforming Maple Leafs teams. In contrast to the Montreal teams you allude to, who successfully drafted and developed players, there is a long-standing impulse with Leaf management to “cash in the dividends” before they have reached maturity. Unfortunately, this impatience has become part of the culture. In contrast, the Habs’ more frequent winning has allowed Canadiens’ managers to avoid tying to prematurely cash in on their investments. Consequently, they have allowed prospects to develop to maturity. As we have seen, this has resulted in a long-term winning culture. Wilson is under a lot of pressure this year. Perhaps he succumbed to a gambler’s mentality, seeing Gardiner as a “lottery ticket” more than a “bond” that will reach maturity in 2012, not 2011. While Gardiner does not look altogether out of place, the first two games were likely sobering ones for the coaches. It is impossible to know what effect yo-yoing managers have on a young Kadri or Gardiner. One thing is for sure, these intriguing players are going to have to be mentally tough to survive and thrive as Maple Leafs. If they cannot handle demotions and promotions, they are probably not going to cope with the rigors of being a Leaf, at least as well as they will need to in order to succeed to their potential.

  8. Some interesting thoughts there, Bobby, except for your insistence on the Habs having a much more winning culture- that's pretty much a myth that's been exploded a while ago.
    In a single recent example, our present de facto #1 centre is a Habs castaway, by the way.
    I'd be interested as well in seeing if the Hab's draft success is better in any meaningful way than the Leafs in the last 30 years. I fear there may be more bark than bite there as well.

  9. And the more I think of it, the more I agree with keeping Gunnar, and I mean long-term. A very, very difficult skill set and experience cache to replace.

  10. Well-stated Bobby C...I can appreciate your analogy re dividend/maturity and a lottery tick versus a bond...I wish current management had shown a bit more patience.

    Mt sense, KidK (I may be wrong) is that like myself, Bobby may be reflecting on the Habs of yesterday year...perhaps until the mid-'90s or so. They didn't have that great '50/'60s/'70s success in the '80s, but did get to the finals twice and of course there was the surprise baby (Cup) in '93.

    But I think you raise a fair point KidK, in wondering about just how strong the Hab drafts have been compared with the Leafs over recent decades. Even back in the "hey-day" '70s, Sam Pollock would "miss" on a lot of picks, but like the New England Patriots now, stockpiled so many that the ones that did "hit" were enough...

  11. Living in Montreal for many years, I became unpopular with my friends for suggesting that Sam Pollock was no genius at drafting. What I noticed at the time was that his early round picks were often duds, whereas his later round picks sometimes panned out, sometimes in spectacular ways. If he was so insightful, why did he not pick the ultimately successful players first? I agree, his genius was in stockpiling picks, and letting the players develop and mature. Raw talent, insightful scouts, and the law of averages worked to his advantage. It could be that the Canadiens lost that edge in recent years, and of course, with free agency and a salary cap system, the whole development question has become complex. However, the issue of “NHL readiness” is similar to the past, that critical moment when the fruit is ripe for picking. My sense, which is probably the same as most others, is that Gardiner is too green for the big league. The ideal place for Gardiner, for the time being, would be minding the store for Ben Scrivens.

  12. Hi Michael. Generally I agree with you that time in the minors is a good thing for any player. Gardiner could certainly benefit from being in the minors. However, I disagree that no player has ever been harmed in the AHL. How do you that? It is a negative assumption that can't be proven. Case in point is Kadri, after being the best player in the preseason his rookie year he was cut and sent down. Maybe if he had been rewarded and kept up he would have just kept playing at a high level. We will never know. Of all the first round draft picks that never amounted to anything is it becuase they were never good enough or because they couldn't handle the disapointment and just faded away? You can never prove it one way or the other. In general I agree with you but there could have been some guys who don't pan out and we would never know.

  13. Wilbur, I think you made a great point. We really can't prove a guy has not seen his career impacted negatively by playing in the minors. Though I think we agree that, on the flip side, if management communicates clearly with the young player, and the player understands the rationale and the longer-term "plan", it's a huge benefit for the player, or at least should be, to spend time learning the pro game at that level.

    With regard to Kadri, you know I've been beating that drum-- that is, that, in my view, management has messed that one up big time. I'm not saying the young man won't develop into a really good NHL player. I just think they've handled his situation all wrong, and I feel that is, in part, because they don't even recognize they they have mis-managed public (and their own!) expectations from the get go. As I said in one recent post, he was going to a be a "top-six centre" one day, then a third or fourth-line winger the next day...I think they still don't know what to do. I wanted him to stay way longer with the Marlies last season, but they panicked when the big team wasn't scoring goals...

  14. I totally agree with the view put forward. 1st round draft picks (and Gardiner was one, albeit he came to the Leafs indirectly) are a team's most precious assets and should be handled as such. Their development should be carefully thought out planned and assessed with a view to the long term benefit of the player and the team.

    What this flip flopping does is potentially impact the confidence of the players negatively. Players whose focus is puck possession and touch need the confidence to make plays and if they lose their confidence, can retard progress and dimiinsh the likelihood of long term success (and I believe this is more true for defencemen than forwards, since D is a more reactive position and requires more judgement).

    A more gradual approach to player development allows players to achieve success at each level and enter the NHL having succeeded in playing against men in a more physically demanding league. It also reduces the risks associated with bringing up a player and worrying about whether you can use him in key situations - once you bring him up you should plan to put him on the top 4 D or top 2 lines to allow him the time on the ice and the quality of linemates to prosper.

    Clearly Kadri was a knee jerk reaction to the Leafs poor performance in the first 10 games last year and he does not regularly display the skills that were advertised from the day of his draft.

    Playing 24 minutes a game in the AHL in all situations will be much better for Gardiner than playing 14 minutes in the NHL on the 3rd pair, and especiallly for the long term.

  15. Very well said, Gordie D. Given that the Leafs have 6 experienced and capable NHL defensemen in place (and Aulie ready at a moment's notice), it just seems logical that they would not feel the need to rush a talented youngster like Gardiner, who has lots of time to develop properly, including in the AHL.

  16. Def should have had Gardiner in the A. Kadri should be down there, and so should Frattin.

    They would easily have enough talent down there to compete for a Calder Cup Championship.

    Learning how to win and getting minutes is so under-valued in today's NHL.

  17. Not only is the Twitterverse all atwitter ready to have Jonas strung up, not only do his teammates act like court jesters around him much of the time, but he has to endure Rangers smelling blood. “Ooops, sorry Your Highness,” says Matt to King Henrik, and off to the dungeon it is for the lowly rook. (At least he was allowed to keep his head.) Meanwhile, the Rangers of the Kingdom are given free reign to slay the Monster. Plainly, Jonas is under enormous pressure and is responding like a knight. Even on that deflating goal, if you look closely, you can see Saint Allaire beseeching his disciple to find his place in the universe. The Rangers probably have heard old legends of smashing sticks, concluding, undisciplined rabble-rouser: Drive the Monster mad, exile him to the Nordic territories. Alas, the ugly legends cannot fathom the Monster’s rage, which is mostly directed within. The Reverend James, who has clearly been meditating and drinking green tea for the last twenty-three years, is the best companion the Monster could have. If we finally get our fairy tale ending, these two will have to team up to slay the real ogre, that relentless spectre named Harold.
    PS: Mike Brown’s performance was sublime.