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As talented as he is, will Jake Gardiner be physical enough to be effective in the playoffs at the NHL level?

For those who might be interested in some recent posts they might have missed, here here a few....
  • Remembering what it was like as a young fan when the Leafs were getting ready to play in the Stanley Cup finals


There’s no question that Leaf fans see a big future for Jake Gardiner in a blue and white uniform.  His acquisition may have been (to date) the crown jewel of the many and assorted player moves Brian Burke has made in his almost four years at the helm of the Toronto ship. 

18 months ago, most Leaf fans didn’t know a great deal about the young former college defenseman, but Gardiner’s play with the Maple Leafs this past season rocketed him up not only the Maple Leaf blueline depth chart, but also put him in very select company when it comes to how Leaf fans now value him. Many project him as a future NHL All-Star.

He demonstrates remarkable poise for someone so young and inexperienced at the professional level.  He sees the ice well, is calm with the puck and seems to possess extraordinary hockey instincts.  That the guy he was traded for, Francois Beachemin, will likely be retired for a decade by the time Gardiner hangs up his own skates (forget that the Leafs also acquired the suddenly productive-again Joffrey Lupul—who most of us thought was simply a salary dump in reverse) just makes the deal all the more impressive from a Toronto perspective.

There seems little doubt Gardiner will be an elite NHL defenseman.  Whether he indeed becomes another Scott Niedermayer “type” of player (as we have discussed here in the past) or simply a really good defensemen, players with his skill and skating ability are few and far between.

At the moment, Gardiner is leading the Marlies through the AHL Calder Cup finals as a big-minute defenseman who can play in any situation—power-play, penalty-kill and in key late-game situations as well.  It’s been the longest season of his hockey career, no doubt.  For a guy with a background in U.S. college hockey, a full NHL schedule this past season and four more (albeit in the AHL) playoff rounds has likely created a fatigue factor for the young rearguard—though he rarely seems to break a sweat on the ice.  He is one cool customer, as we like to say.

All this said, having watched him closely this past season and now in the AHL playoffs, I can’t help but   wonder if he will ever be a defenseman that will thrive when the NHL playoffs turn gritty and highly physical—as they inevitably do.  Yes, Gardiner is supremely skilled and can often skate away from trouble- and from opposing fore-checkers as well.  But I saw a number of situations this past season where he struggled under heavy checking, and wasn’t nearly strong enough on the puck—and that wasn’t even playoff intensity hockey. 

I know he will get bigger and stronger as he works out and fills out in the years to come, but I’m just reminding myself that we might have to be patient, at times, when we find ourselves evaluating his future.  Not that we shouldn’t be enthusiastic about him.  I have zero question he’ll be an outstanding player, but while I don’t expect “skill” defensemen like Gardiner (we can maybe think in terms of players like  Coffey, Bourque, Lidstrom, Niedermayer, perhaps even Kaberle, in Leaf terms, etc…) to be "tough", you have to be in that very elite category for fans not to have expectations that you will also be able to handle the physical aspect of the NHL game come playoff time.

Maybe Gardiner will be just fine when that opportunity arises.  For now, though, at least for me, the jury is still out.


  1. "But I saw a number of situations this past season where he struggled under heavy checking, and wasn’t nearly strong enough on the puck—and that wasn’t even playoff intensity hockey"

    All that can be taught/trained...

    It's his skill, skating, and hockey IQ that really impress.. and all that out of a 21 year old straight from College hockey.

  2. Agree, Chuck, that his hockey IQ is very high. I just wonder if he will add a physical dimension over time....being able to handle tough playoff hockey round after round.

  3. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples but after seeing his name in the news so many times recently, Lidstrom definitely found a way to deal with it. I don't see why Jake couldn't but then again...only time will tell I suppose.

  4. I agree that he should be able to make the adjustment to playoff hockey, Sasko. I think my only point of concern is that (and I remember this with Kaberle, who was very skilled, in a different way, perhaps...) come playoff time, skill only gets you so far - unless you are in that very, very elite category like a Lidstrom or Niedermayer.

    If Gardiner becomes that kind of player, then it is somewhat a moot question, I agree.

  5. I don't worry about this at all.

    He has a college hockey background which has far fewer games. He is used to playing about 40 games a year.

    In this, his first pro year he played 75 NHL games and another 19 AHL games (15 were playoff games) he is up to 94 games this year from 41 last year. That's a heck of jump in number and intensity.

    Let's give him two years before we even worry about this.

    All sorts of all-star defencemen have been very valuble without playing a gritty, physical game. Brian Leetch, Paul Coffey, Sergei Zubov...come to mind.

    Gardiner already seems way more physical than Phil I think we are ok.

    If we have Brian Leetch/Zubov type player...I am ok with that too, but the way Gardiner uses his speed to recover makes me think we have a young Scott Neidermayer type player.

    In any case, those three all played important roles in the playoffs and helped win multiple Cups. We can't really ask for any more.

  6. Thanks DP. The Leetch comparison is a good one, too.

  7. It's his age and weight, I think, ML. The kid officially weighs 184 (ha!) which puts him in the bottom 10 defenceman of the 300 who played this year.

    The median guy is 207. That's a big difference.

    Plus, he played enormous minutes this year, as a kid coming out of college - twice the number of games as he ever gas before, so almost certainly his game weight was <180.

    When you add to that, at 21, he's entirely likely to pack on muscle in the coming years, I'm not so worried.

    I just hope that he learns to master the positional game. It's not easy.

    - Not Norm

  8. That's a fair comment, Not Norm. He's a young guy with immense talent who should indeed get bigger and stronger in the years to come. He has played a hugely inflated schedule compared to what he has been accustomed to and handled himself very well. Thanks.

  9. He's had one year, one year in the pro's and look at what he has achieved when not one fan knew anything about him. Give the kid a chance to fill out and improve his game. Bound to have a slump at some point as well and that is the time the Leafs need to look after him.

  10. Can't argue with what you're saying Mark....

  11. Very fair question to ask. The Rangers turned Eric Karlsson into a non-entity in the first round this year , taking advantage of his lack of size and strength to grind him unmercifully into total ineffectiveness.

    It may come down to how much of a competitor Jake is and also his willingness he do the off ice work to become stronger.

    These are the same questions Karlsson now faces after being made invisible by the hard hitting Rangers. Are these two studs or are they "Phil Housely" clones, great stats but playoff time Invisible Men?

    Very young guys, only time will tell.

  12. I personally think a Sophomore slump is likely, if not inevitable. Let's face it, it's going to take time for this guy to put it together, his ceiling is that high. He played unreal for a rookie for a team that looked awful (yet again) on defense. The bar he set is extremely high. I just want to see him get stronger on the puck in corners as Michael is saying as well.

  13. Bmaximus...I do think Gardiner can adjust, but being able to and being willing to are two different things.

    As you noted, Karlsson, an elite talent to be sure, was not allowed to play his game as much in the playoffs.

    Gardiner is a wonderful player, but there are challenges ahead.

  14. Well said, Cam (LealuvrCC). We're talking about a very high ceiling here...

  15. When I think about Gardiner, I think of a lanky, extremely skilled mobile defensmen who is scared to fight in the corners. I immediately related that fear and what I call silly rookie mistakes to 'rookie' or 'developing hockey IQ'. I think his athletism makes his IQ look much higher than it actially is.

    The next question. Is there a difference between grit and physicality??? Can you teach a player like Gardiner to fight his natural instincts and go into corners and clear out forwards with his size?

  16. You raise some very interesting points, Brandon, including whether his tremendous athletic ability makes him look has though he has a higher "hockey IQ" than he perhaps does.

    As to grit and physicality, they are certainly first cousins, at least for me, though not necessarily the same thing.

    Can he be "taught to be a physical defenseman? I don't tend to think so. He can be taught positioning, angles, how to use his frame, but to be physical? That implies a willingness to play that way...

    Great post Brandon. Food for thought.

  17. I think the next couple of years should give us an ample take on how comfortable Gardiner gets with the physical aspect of the game. He's never going to give us many highlight reel hits, and that's just fine. Interesting article, though, and I'll be keeping an eye out for how Gardiner reacts when he is with the puck and being forechecked; it was those situations as much as their positional play what made the likes of Teppo Numminen an effective player, and Lidström a dominant one, looking from a defencive perspective.

    For all his skill, Kaberle significantly lost from his effectiveness when he was under heavy physical pressure, his usually cool opening passes would often become hasty ones, and he did sometimes lose position to(subconsciously) avoid contact.

    I don't think that kind of thing can actively be taught, but instead it's something some individuals can "learn" with experience. Making some mistakes is definitely a part of the learning process for a young defenceman. If the player can adapt to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, he'll be fine. Some players will wrestle the puck out of the corner, some others expertly collect the loose ones, and both types are effective.

    As a side note, I've seen physical players who manage to make themselves ineffective with their "physical" play, and the most recent and horrendous example I've had the misfortune to watch was Garnet Exelby. The man would lose position to make the big hit, possibly missing it or getting called for interference. At times he would find his mark, and then I'd have to suffer the indignity to hear remarks to the tone of "at least he's physical". I'll bet any goalie playing under that kind of physical is not so much eager to face the next shot, than he is anxious for the game to be over. I know talking about Gardiner and Exelby within a single comment is in poor taste, but I guess I needed to get that off my chest.

  18. CGLN...great post. I appreciate your point in suggesting a distinction between what can be "taught" and what a player can "learn" over time.

    Your Exelby point made me think, in broader terms, about how fans and media often trumpet the fact that a guy picks up so many minutes in penalties, as though that stat somehow makes him "tough". In fact, much of the time, it means he took a bad penalty because of a lack of skill or that he was lazy or out of position- and too often put his team at the disadvantage of having to kill penalties far too often.

  19. and this is why most leaf fans get roasted, hes played a half a freakin season, in the NHL thats it thats all... This comment could be made about the entire leaf team cause they havent made the playoffs in seven years... Is luke schenn tough enough for the playoffs???
    is tybo tough? I can see why some players never want to wear the maple leaf.

  20. Michael, you caught precisely the point I was trying to make, soft or lazy penalties don't make a player tough, but they can definitely make him just plain bad. Even though it's not all that common, there have always been players who could be called "tough", even if their style of play isn't that physical or their penalty minute totals would suggest certain "softness". A player who is able to finish his play when he knows a big hit is coming, and keeping their cool afterwards is pretty tough to me. Take Pavel Datsyuk, for example. Wonderfully talented, doesn't really play a very physical game. Good luck trying to throw him off his game with big hits, though.

    Then there's Jarome Iginla, who does play a physical game while not being particularly big. And he also plays pretty clean. Definitely a tough player, and I doubt many would disagree.

    So yeah, and apologies for repeating myself, but if Gardiner isn't comfortable playing the physical style, there's no need to try and force him to be something that doesn't come naturally. He just needs to not get rattled out of his game when the game gets physical, that's the key. As he matures with age and experience, we'll see how his game shapes up. But for now, I hope he gets coached so that his strengths get stronger and his flaws fewer. And without trying to turn him into Scott Stevens (severe exaggeration, I know).

    Actually, I hope that for any young player.

  21. CGLN...I agree with every word you wrote. Thanks for that.