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Leafs in trade talks? Why, again, would we trade a gifted young defenseman?

I recognize that, while I have always acknowledged that you have to love his obvious gifts, I’m not always a fan of Jake Gardiner’s defensive work. I won’t run through all my usual criticisms, but too often, for example, I see him (especially behind or around his own net) lose puck battles with opposing forwards.

That happens to a lot of defensemen, I realize, but when he is on his game fully, this occurs a bit less frequently (e.g. his work against the Bruins in this past May’s playoff series), and what we can focus on are his enormous skills.  While he is no, say, Bobby Baun (that's a young Baun, probably not even Gardiner's age, at right, from a late 1950s photo) in the hitting department, he can usually separate onrushing forwards from the puck quite deftly.  He is generally the ultimate in calm and cool on the ice.  He never seems fatigued and looks like he could play 40 minutes a night.  Now, at times he plays a bit more like a 1920s/’30s style ‘rover’ than a classic modern-day NHL defenseman, but that’s not always a bad thing.  (Paul Coffey made a Hall-of-Fame career in part based on his stunning abilities with the puck and on the rush.) Gardiner will often lug the puck up himself and head straight to the opposition net, sometimes creating dangerous scoring chances. (And hey, I’m the guy that said here a few weeks ago that I believe Gardiner is capable of a 50-60 point season; he is that skilled offensively.)

Sometimes, however, his desire to make a difference offensively can cost us.  It doesn’t always show on the scoreboard and hasn’t burned us much so far this season so far, but even though a forward fills in for him (in theory), remember, it’s a forward, not a defenseman, who is in his spot when the puck suddenly goes the other way.  Thankfully Gardiner is a fast skater and can sometimes bridge the space gap with his superman-like makeup speed. The problem is, his forays sometimes lead to a sudden opportunity going the other way—and we are back on our heels.  (I'd also like to see less wide circles and more stops and starts in his game but hey, I'm no hockey coach, I grant you...)

In short, it’s a high-risk game.

I realize that some disagree with my assessment of Gardiner.  They don’t see the same glaring defensive-zone issues (his work along the boards, in the corners, in front of and behind his own net, being weak on the puck at times) because they, I guess, mostly notice his ability to skate away from trouble.  Which is a marvelous attribute, for sure.

It’s just that, to me, he is so far removed from being the “complete” NHL defenseman—yet.  But all this said, why would he be? What is the guy—like 23 years old?  Has he even played 100 NHL games yet?

Now, if there is an issue where the coaching staff (and I have no idea if this is actually the case) is communicating and he is not paying attention, sure, that’s a problem.  But when I was informed this week that some reliable hockey commentators (including Elliotte Friedman) were reporting that their grapevine had Gardiner’s name linked to actual trade discussions, it flummoxed me a bit.

Again, I see ways Gardiner can be better.  (He's hardly alone.)  But how many times do we hear NHL GM’s say they want, need or are looking (especially around the trade deadline) for a puck-moving defenseman?  These players are not exactly a dime a dozen.  Especially so when they are a long way from free agency, and teams “control” a player’s rights for a period of time before they have to cough up the ridiculously huge amounts they have to in order to keep those players.

Yes, the Leafs could use more up front—most NHL clubs could.  (Though goodness knows we are better than we were three seasons ago.) Many teams have ‘filler players’, let’s be honest, on their fourth and sometimes even third lines in today’s cap constrained NHL world.  But it’s not like we can just go buy a modern-day Terry O’Reilly or a Brendan Shanahan and say, hey, you’d be a nice second/third-line winger here, you want to play for us?  Those individuals could score goals, hit, fight and and were hard to play against.  Finding these types of two-way, difference-making forwards in a 30-team NHL ain’t easy. And if you want one, you have to pay a dear price to obtain them.  Look at David Clarkson.  It didn’t cost us “assets”, but it did cost a staggering amount of money over a long term.

But even if players of that ilk were in fact available to Dave Nonis, is the answer really giving up a player that may be something special some day?  Again, I’m not Gardiner’s biggest booster, but I am always loathe to move young defensemen with potential.  And he has more than just “potential”, eh?  I know we want elite forwards, and you need talent up front to win, but you also need quality and real depth on the blueline, especially come playoff time.

People are saying, well, we have all these other young defenders like Finn, Percy, Granberg and of course Rielly in the pipeline.  But prospects are just that until they become proven commodities at the NHL level.  The Leafs have had a number of defensemen in recent years, heck over the past ten years, that most observers thought could be really good NHL’ers.  Some have been pretty good; some have been just OK. Others haven’t really loved up to their billing—or at least what Leaf supporters had hoped. In most cases, those that have made a bit of a mark (Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White, Jay Harrison, etc.) have done so elsewhere.

We've already moved Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie in recent years.  I concede that neither has been outstanding in their new environments (Tampa and Philly) but both are still young and despite their critics, may have a future in the league.  They are still very young- just like Gardiner.

So I just don’t know that moving Gardiner is an answer, much less the answer. I’m not even sure I know what the question is, as this discussion kind of came out of left field for me.  I rarely read the daily sports pages, so I’m guessing Nonis and company would deny they are “shopping” the young defenseman.  I expect them to say that, at least publicly.  Hopefully this is classic media speculation, perhaps created by opposing GM’s.  I’d rather think that, than be worried that we have a coach-player clash, because those things rarely end well for anyone.

Where do you sit on this:  is this all overblown media speculation and we should move along because there’s nothing to see here?  Is there something to this chatter?  If the rumours are indeed accurate, should the Leafs listen, if dealing Gardiner would help them elsewhere on the roster?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  1. As always a very well thought out and fair article. I couldn't agree more that moving Gardiner is not "the" answer, but I do believe it can be "an" answer, if they can find a team to swap a young, VERY solid stay at home dman (because that is obviously oh so easy... This is fictional conjecture anyway).

    It wouldn't be my answer... But neither would have been 90% of the Leafs' offseason moves.. Or playing Orr for a half period of last night's game.. But hey, I'm just an arm chair gm /coach at best and what do I know.


    1. Hi Adam- I think it would have to be one of those "good for both team" deals, as when Iafrate went to Washington for Bob Rouse many years ago. They were very different, but both capable defensemen.

      The Orr thing is baffling to many. I admit I am often confounded myself. There must be a method to Carlyle's "madness" though I couldn't always tell you what it is...

  2. Well I guess it comes down to whether the coach is going to play him or not. To me it looks like Gardiner just doesn't fit with Carlyle's coaching philosophy. A coach not liking a player can be just as detrimental to a player's development as any other i.e. rushing a player to the NHL. We all saw what happened when Wilson made Schenn his whipping boy. It looks like Gardiner is Carlyle's whipping boy. It looks to me like Gardiner is scared to make a mistake out there. He is walking on egg shells because he knows if he screws up he faces the wrath of Carlyle. Contrast that with Carlyle's handling of Reilly. In the first period against Ottawa he was so-so, yet he didn't get benched right away and got more and more ice as the game went on.

    If Carlyle is not going to play the guy and you can get an excellent young piece for him then I am not adverse to making a trade. This is not a trade for spare parts but a trade for an exceptional young player still on an entry level contract. There is no point in keeping a guy whom the coach has no faith in. The only way Carlyle is not here for awhile is if the Leafs completely crater and fall off a cliff. I don't think that is going to happen. They have enough talent to be in the playoff hunt all year I think so this is going to be a long term problem. May as well try and fix it now. Besides you mention trading Schenn, well that trade brought us JVR who is a pretty dam good player. Not all trades are bad and if a similar deal can be made, make it. Will it hurt? Yes. Could it be the wrong move ? Yes. But it could also lead to us getting that elusive number one center, one who is young enough to grow with the rest of the youngsters on this team. That is the type of trade that I am talking about.

    1. I just have a difficult time deciphering whether there really is a serious "issue" between Gardiner and the coach (or coaching staff) or whether it's just the natural evolution in the relationship between a talented young player and a demanding coach. (I agree that some trades bring back good returns, like in the case of van Riemsdyk; I just generally don't like moving young defensemen...)

      I would love to hear what opposing GM's would honestly say about Gardiner's value- i.e. is he worth a top-line centre? Thanks for posting, Willbur.

  3. Michael, we know the Toronto media loves to make a mountain out of a molehill. Carlyle said Jake is a very talented young player and all we ask of these players is that they continue to improve. I won' t quote but that's almost exactly what he said. The next day there were stories that they weren't getting along. I've watched Carlyle's interviews and have never heard him single out a player. I also watch the practices. The players seem relaxed and there is often a bit of laughter. Randy is certainly playing Gardiner, he's not sitting on the bench. I've not heard anything negative from Carlyle. C.N.

    1. I posted here recently that I see Carlyle as a coach who does indeed interact with his players and while obviously intense, can relax with them at times as well. As you have observed, Carlyle just wants players to improve, which surely is always the motivation. Now, if he is unfairly singling out guys (and I guess some fans and former players seem to feel that has occurred) then that's an issue, though I agree that has not happened publicly. But I don't know that we have any indication that there is an issue with Gardiner, other than Carlyle pushing him to be better in all areas of his game. Thanks C.N.

  4. My guess is that if Elliotte Friedman is talking about it, there is substance to it. That said, I don't think he's going to be traded, at least not so early. The Leafs, hard as they are on Gardiner, believe he is special, which is why they think he's worth a top forward in return. Other teams, as much as they would agree, would never admit that, and would not want to give up the farm when they can negotiate him more as a middling defenseman who hasn't proven a thing yet. If he were to be traded, it wouldn't be until the trade deadline at least, if not after this season.

    I am hoping (assuming my own theory here holds) that Gardiner is able to use this season as a chance to prove once and for all that he is in the Leafs' future plans. I have no doubt that his lack of confidence is hurting him right now. As you say, he's just 23 years old. The name that immediately comes to mind for me is Tomas Kaberle. Where was he at 23? A late round draft choice still finding his game, and given the opportunity to flourish. He rewarded the Leafs with more than a decade of smooth puck movement out of their zone and was a dangerous part of the power play unit. Kaberle was no more physical defensively than Gardiner to say the least.

    Maybe the Leafs are so enamoured with Rielly that they are hoping he pushes Gardiner aside as the puck moving defenseman, and hoping they can pull off a trade of the magnitude of Schenn for van Riemsdyk. Just another theory maybe, I guess I'm trying to figure out myself what the Leafs' brass is thinking with their attitude toward Gardiner. I for one can envision him being a viable part of this franchise for a long time, given the chance.

    1. It's always hard to figure out what management might be thinking. Surely they did not initiate this "rumour", though some have suggested that would actually help to create a bidding war for Gardiner.

      I'm more inclined to think that non-Leaf people have kick-started this. That said, I'm surprised that we wild even consider this, given that defensemen generally don't fully mature until much later in their careers. For sure if we were to trade Gardiner, we would be following his progress elsewhere for a decade or more...

      I'm not one who, thinks, for example, that we can't accommodate both Rielly and Gardiner, as long as we also have some defensemen who can play the physical hockey that's also needed. The Devils in their hey-day had some smooth-skating offensive defensemen (Rafalski and Niedermayer, for example) but also crunchers like Stevens and Daneyko as I recall. Thanks Pete!

  5. I never answered your question! I can understand some frustration with Gardiner. And I do now recall Carlyle saying something about a " Jake mistake" which I'm sure he regretted. Gardiner seems to regress a bit at the start of the season and then builds up again but I don't think we'll move him. With an 82 game schedule there's a lot more time this year to give all young players a chance to play and progress and that's what we're seeing. They know they have a special talent in Gardiner. Unless someone offers a young talented player with a right-hand shot and a low contract straight up for Jake, nothing will happen and I'm not sure teams are willing to make that sort of deal this early in the season. The Oilers have stated they'll make "bold moves" but they need someone who is ready now and Jake is still developing. The interest teams have shown was originally for Franson ( I'm hoping Nonis is working on an extension for him) so we can only wonder why Gardiner has been mentioned. Hopefully nothing comes of it. I'd like to keep them both.

  6. Steve from CalgaryOctober 10, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    Good Morning Michael, It seems to me that RC has a system and is doing his job of coaching these players to be the team that will gel and go far into the season with their style and game. Bringing up players from the Marlies who've produced, and giving them time with the big club is a great reward for being the player they have been coached to be. It follows through to the big club and #28 has been a part of that style that RC has been preaching. Reward = TOI.
    In Morgans case, I agree that he is still young and a D-man takes longer to mature/develop into a solid D-man in most cases. Its a gamble whether you trade for a #1C or hold on to your prospect and take the chance that he will be that special D-man. imo, if they can get a Sven Baertschi or similar type prospect. then pull the trigger as we do have a stable full of potential "special D-men" in the minors and coming thru the system. Other wise keep Morgan and develop him, teach him and watch him be the guy you are hoping for. Good grief, the Leafs have a huge management team that can help get these kids to the level they expect or move them. That's a lot of hockey minds sitting up in the private boxes watching and scouting.
    I'd like to see them hang on to the kid and develop with time. I doubt we are making a run for the cup this year, so thinking in that re-build mode, maybe in the next year or two when these young men develop and grow. thanks for giving me a place to vent and share my feelings on my long beloved team. btw I do enjoy the video blog on the leafs and it's a great idea that i'm sure will take off with the size of Leaf Nation. cheers from Calgary.

    1. Good to hear from you, Steve. I know Carlyle is a bit of a liked/disliked figure in Toronto, but he is focused on developing his team to play the way he thinks they must to be successful, whether fans agree or not (or like it).

      Your reference to Orr is one of the divisive points, I suppose. While his roster presence may baffle some of us at times, he is evidently doing exactly what the coach wants, which, as you say, equals ice time- again, whether some fans like it or not.

      The Gardiner situation is fascinating. It seems counter-intuitive to grab him as we did in the Anaheim deal, see him develop in front of our own eyes and then let him go. Chris Pronger (and I'm not saying Gardiner plays like Pronger) was traded for Shanahan, right, so anything can happen, I guess.

      Good to hear that you have caught one of the Hangout shows. Thanks Steve. Keep holding up your part of Leafworld from Calgary!

  7. The defense position has evolved since the lockout of 2004-05. The many rule changes put into place (the most notable being the elimination of the two line off-side) have made it imperative to have speed and even moreso quickness on defense. Large slow hard hitters on the back line are useful on the penalty kill but a liability elsewhere. All one has to do is look at the last two Norris winners (neither of whom deserved it in my estimation) to see where the priorities are.

    It usually takes 2 or 3 years for a player to develop into a complete NHL defenseman. Jake Gardiner is extremely talented and is in effect in his 2nd year as last season was a wash due to injury. It should come as no surprise that he has met bumps in the road, all young defensemen do. He has the potential to develop into one of the premier players at his position and I believe that it would be an enormous mistake to trade him.

    I realize that the Leafs have some talented prospects but I don't believe that any of them, with the exception of Rielly have Gardiner's upside.

    1. I sense that you speak for a lot of Leaf supporters on this, Pete Cam. Thanks for chiming in.

  8. If there is one thing the Leafs have now and haven't had in many (sometimes depressing) previous years as a fan, is players with potential to be really good. It keeps my interest going. Gardiner keeps my optimism. Last year's success was beyond my expectations and that feels good too. I don't want to trade potential star talent for a premature swing (trade) for the homerun push to the Stanely Cup playoffs now.

    1. I hear you loud and clear, drgreg. One of the most enjoyable things about being a fan, especially of a team that hasn't won anything of substance in a while, is seeing the young talent grow and develop. To move a gifted guy before he even reaches his zenith as a player (not that you would trade a player actually in his prime!) seems a tad rash. Let Gardiner build on his strengths and develop his weaknesses. Then, how good might he be?

  9. Yes Michael teams at the deadline are looking for puck moving dman at the deadline, they also want Big stay at home Dman too.
    Can't have all puck rushers back there.
    Trading JUST Gardiner will not help your roster now. No cap room for that to work. Trading Jake will net you a blue chip prospect, prospects, or picks.
    I do believe there are truth to these rumours. Does management, coach feel they have a similar player in Reilly but with more defensive awareness . Tho with a -3 +/- ,Reilly not showing that as of yet. Is Percy on their radar. A very "smart" hockey IQ, with good breakout ability.Are these the players making Jake available.
    I do believe that leaf fans are expecting too much in return for Gardiner.
    On another site a poster had suggested this trade proposal.
    To Calgary - Gardiner + Liles
    To TO - Shane O'Brien + 2nd
    He was laughed at.
    I defended the proposal as fair market value.
    You are not getting a 1st rounder. We know that a starting goaltender who outplayed a top 10 goalie for 2 seasons gets that from the draft.
    Be interesting for sure :)

    1. Good points tans66. (It's true, teams want everything at the deadline- centers, puck movers, stay-at-home guys, third-line checkers, versatile depth players....)

      I have no idea how much the Leafs are listening, but if they are "assuming" Rielly and Percy will be ready, well, it's a pretty big risk. Thanks for visiting.

  10. There's no doubt Gardiner's play this early has been below expectations. In fact I wasn't that amour with him in the Boston series either. That said, I believe he can potentially be a very good defenceman, perhaps bordering on elite status. The skill set is hard to ignore and with that spotlight, the deficiencies are even more magnified. As it stands, I feel he is just simply not playing the game the way the situation dictates right now. It seems like he is trying to do too much given the circumstances. Part of this problem I believe is the current situation that he has been put in - namely his main playing partner.

    I think because of his high profile status/expectation, he has been unfairly and critically singled out. There is no doubt that there have been some poor decisions but the populous should also consider the poorer play by Ranger thus affecting Gardiner. I have to admit, I know nothing about Ranger prior to his arrival but the hype and the "rust" excuses have become a little tired. If anything he is the Kotsa of the 2013-2014 Leafs. A good player - for the AHL.

    All that saying is that we are way harsher than should be.

    As it stands, the topic du jour is his potential trade. Now obviously, this situation is additionally compounded by the arrival of Reilly. A similar player but with even faster wheels, which appears to make Gardiner expendable - a line of thinking that is really silly with 4 games into the season.

    There has been various thoughts banter about a trade for; Statsny out of Colorado or with Edmonton or Calgary for futures. None of which really make sense given the cap restraint and the current status of the Leafs. This is a competitive team and to trade away someone of Gardiner's ability for long term gain is not a wise move. Sure the argument is that Reilly will fill the spot but are we not going to make the same mistake by rushing him as we might have done so with Gardiner? How much is he really better than Gardiner? I say not much as it stands.

    We need to all relax a bit and to remember that there's that Clarkson fellow that has yet to play. When he returns, the frontend is pretty decent. Our weakness as I see it, is not the offence but the D but we are blaming the wrong person.

    1. Lots of stuff to consider in what you wrote- and I'll let your comments stand on their own merit. Thanks as always Lukas.

  11. greetings
    I am not sure if the rumour is actually that gardiner is being shopped...Elliotte said they are listening, it behooves Nonis to listen to offers, as he has stated, no one is really untouchable, it is just some guys will take a lot to it should be. Personally, i like the idea of the top 2 pairings featuring Reilly and Gardiner on each in the future, not many teams can throw that out there. The guys I see as not really fitting long term are Dion and Gunnar. Dion will command too much of the cap to stay, and just does not bring enough to the table to eat up 6-7 mill of the cap in my view. If Franson and Reilly continue to develop chemistry they can be a fine duo, ditto IF Ranger can ever really get his game back with Jake, against Nashville he looked a little bit more comfortable. MacWilliam should supplant Fraser down the road, maybe not this year but next year for sure. One of Granberg or Percy may very well be ready by next year as well....that is a very young and potentially talented blueline corps, I do not see a place for Phaneuf by spring of '15 at the latest. Trades may very well occur, and again i do not think anyone is necessarily untouchable, but when I look around the league, I cannot see a fit if we move Gardiner, at least not at this time.
    The two guys who left have badmouthed Randy in the press, but quite frankly, I pay little heed to them, as I thought neither one earned their paycheques last year but it did point something out that I think is integral to this discussion - they said Randy did not communicate, yet 2 or 3 games ago the pre-game showed Randy and Jake on the Leaf bench with an iPad going over positioning, this was a key to me, the lines of communication are open here, and if Jake is willing to listen and work on it, this Leaf coaching staff will have him learning how to use his assets to become a more complete player.
    I like the youth of this team a lot, and love seeing guys come up from the Marlies and show they either belong, or are close to belonging, especially when they are still quite young...Lievo and Broll come to mind quickly.
    This is a year where I think we can watch this team turn a corner, become a constant threat to win each and every game, and to be able to rebound from the rough spots that will inevitably hit.

    1. Excellent post- thanks for that, freshwind.

      The Dion "question" will no doubt be in the minds of the brass all season, in terms of his future cost and where he would fit. Most of the young defensemen you mention are largely unproven, but there are enough of them that even if only some pan out, the Leafs should always be able to fill and match as need to going forward.

      I agree with you- I do think Carlyle communicates, but it may be the players (in some instances) who sever the relationship, and it becomes cold. I see him laughing on the bench, patting guys on the back, all things I wrote about going back to last season. He may not be as old-fashioned, out of touch and distant as his critics would have fellow fans believe.

      I see them as a near-top team in the East, as I said before the season began. Pittsburgh, Detroit and Boston (and I think they have slipped) may be "elite", but the Leafs, to me, are in with very few teams in the category just below, with a lot of really mediocre teams falling in behind. Thanks freshwind.