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Breathing a sigh of relief: in keeping Jake Gardiner, it’s clear the Leafs are building around a mobile defense….

The signing a few days ago of young Jake Gardiner would seem (though it’s not a certainty, of course) to put to rest the speculation that he might be traded at some point in the near future.  While I did not include him on my “must keep” list at the end of last season (it was a short list—I think Bernier, Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Rielly were the only players I cited at the time), it’s clear he is a talented individual that brings a lot to the Leaf table.

The reference to a possible trade involving Gardiner relates to the ongoing speculation since this past spring that he and Nazem Kadri seemed to the the Leafs in high demand, if the blue and white were leaning toward adding some high-impact veteran forwards to the roster mix. Whether those reports were remotely accurate or not, nothing has occurred along those lines. That doesn't mean trades can't or won't happen at some point, but I sense Shanahan wants to see this roster in action, and especially the kids, before anything drastic is considered.

I recall that there was a mild concern among some Leaf supporters in the past that we may not need two similar types of offensive defensemen, given that Morgan Rielly is also bursting with a desire (and ability) to jump into the play. But I don’t believe, and I’ve said this before, that it’s an issue to have two guys on your blueline who can make a significant offensive contribution.  It’s the old story: if they play with the right partner who can be there to cover up for most of the turnovers that might be created in transition, why not run with defenders who can move the puck and create possession—and scoring chances?

I’ve certainly mentioned here before that while Gardiner is young and should only get better, I’ve been concerned with his ‘wide circle’ approach at times.  That is, he doesn’t always make the quick stop and start you like to see in some situations, including when he loses the puck, but his make-up speed is exceptional so he seems to get back into the play anyway.  My bigger concern with Gardiner is whether he can be physical enough in certain situations—in the corners, along the boards and in front of his net. But like Rielly, he has enormous gifts in other areas. Scott Niedermayer was not the most physical defenseman in the world, yet he was a Hall-of-Fame defenseman with the Devils and Ducks.  So Gardiner may be just fine. (I've posted before that, in some ways, Gardiner reminds me of former Leaf stalwart Carl Brewer, seen at right. Brewer was a very skilled and mobile defenseman who had an old-fashioned nasty streak that Gardiner doesn't have.  Leaf fans of the time will recall that Brewer played superbly in the late 1950s and early '60s alongside rugged Bobby Baun on the Maple Leaf blueline.)

You have to think the ceiling is awfully high for both Rielly, now 20, and Gardiner, 24.  I’ve written about Rielly’s instincts, and his rare ability to, for example, block a pass in front of his own net and suddenly be leading a rush going the other way. Not many guys can do that.

There may well be times when both these players will cause frustration in their own zone for Leafs fans and the team’s coaching staff (maybe Gardiner more than Rielly; we’ll see as they both progress).  But on balance, they both have dynamic skills.  I’m relieved that Shanahan and Nonis have not moved Gardiner, for it’s always a concern when the Leafs trade away talented young defensemen.

If Gardiner commits to going beyond using his natural instincts and talent and to doing the things that the coaching staff wants and needs him to do, the Leafs should have two extremely valuable, mobile ‘kiddie corps’ defensemen to build around for years to come.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Rielly will be, at least, a very good defensemen absolutely no question. He will be our defensive corner stone for a very long time.

    Gardiners contract is very good,

    But I am deeply concerned with Gardiner and Kadri. But we will concentrate on Gardiner now.
    You talk about mobility but it is a bit like Carlyle masking his cycle with mentioning puck posession in the same breath.
    Gardiners problem is his agillity. His mobility is limited by his lack of agility. He is very easy to read And if he will ever be able to play defense on this level is the other question. And your two concernes, the "wide circle approach" and the physical play are absolutely true.

    And if he will be a constant force one day remains to be seen.

    But as I said before, his contract is good and easyly tradable if necessary.
    If Shanahan decides he has to do something in his top 6 he will have no other choice than trading at least Gardiner or Kadri.

    I admit I had Gardiner on my must trade list after the season. I changed my mind on that but he has to show up now.

    1. Hi Marcus- I agree, Gardiner still needs to play well- and consistently. I think the contact is one where the Leafs can live with the number under the cap, and if he plays well, great. But he could still be traded if necessary.

  2. I like that they secured Gardiner long term. I see no problem with having two offensive minded players in him and Rielly. Quite honestly, it's frustrating to see a power play heat up with a defenseman like either of these two on the blueline, then see them replaced for the second unit by the likes of Aki Berg or Pavel Kubina. The one-two punch makes them more dangerous. Also, should the need arise to make a deal for a scoring forward in lieu of having both players, Gardiner is still expendable, and his contract is certainly not immovable.

    I am interested to see how effective either of them, especially Gardiner, might be in their own zone if the Leafs ever start playing in a tighter defensive scheme that everone but Toronto is playing in now. I've said before that Kaberle, and even Salming, managed to play a decent game in their own end without being overly physical. With the right pairings, I think Gardiner can do so too.

    1. You make a good point about Salming and Kaberle, Pete. Both had their defensive zone issues (neither was especially good in front of their own net; Borje flopping around, Tomas standing around while opposing forwards were in our crease) but both were outstanding Leafs nonetheless.

      Gardiner has skill and if he works on his overall game, can become a difference-maker.

  3. Gardiner really has high potential, when he first arrived there was quite a lot of talk about his skating ability and speed with comparisons to Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer. The talent was pretty obvious but he had to get better defensively. I think the concussion set him back and he also seemed to lose some confidence because of it but he was the guy that turned the Leafs around in the Boston playoff series. It was pretty obvious the Bruins were backing up every time he was on the ice. A lot of people will want to disagree but Lupul said he had only played with one other defensemen with Gardiner's type of skill - and that was Scott Neidermayer.

    The other thing to remember about Gardiner is he only started playing organized hockey in high school and then as a forward. He switched to defence at college and then after 10 games in the AHL went to the Leafs. So not quite the same as playing in the OHL and then a few years in the AHL. Given his actual limited time playing defence as well as half a season missed with a concussion it is not surprising he still has a lot to learn about playing defence in the NHL.

    I am pretty excited the Leafs have him locked in for five years and I would rather have Jake at $4 million than Subban at $9 million. I also don't know how anyone could think Gardiner somehow has a lack of mobility because he is not agile? He looks pretty agile to me - especially when he is carrying the puck the length of the ice and walking through several opposition players.

    1. Many feel it takes 30 or more games as a defenseman at this level to really get a sense of what a player can become, Alton. So your comment on Gardiner is well taken.

      In terms of the agility reference, we all see things a bit differently. That's why we all have somewhat differing views in terms of how we assess individual players.

  4. I was worried, with Nonis testing the market on Gardiner, we would lose him. Plenty of teams were interested with good reason. There was even talk that Carlyle asked Nonis if Jake was being traded because it was way too soon. Good for Randy.

    More than drafting and development. I've always felt that the Leafs management have no idea how to evaluate their own players once they reach the NHL level. I thought this was their biggest problem in developing young players. Having to look to other teams for evaluation of their own players says a lot to me, whether it's common practice or not.

    I remember Gus Katsaros mentioning Jake's pivot, taking wider circles etc. on a Hangout episode. That's something he can easily work on with Barb as long as one of the coaches recognizes the problem. I hope, with Shanahan and now Dubas in place, Gardiner will be a Leaf for many years.

    I agree with Alton that there are many reasons why Gardiner needs and deserves a little more time. It's exciting that, as good as he is now, his is best is still to come. Colleen

    1. As you mentioned, Colleen, evaluating and developing young players has been an issue for the Leafs. Natural talent plus good coaching and a personal commitment to get better should only help Gardiner.

    2. Hey Colleen,

      did you reed my comment on your system thoughts?

    3. Hi Marcus! I just saw it. The Leafs build up a lot of speed coming from their own end, don't they? Fun to watch. I had noticed last year that they more trouble with teams who like to clog up and control the neutral zone.
      What do you think of the additions ie) Winnick, Booth, Santarelli etc? Funny, but my son wanted these players, especially Winnick. C

    4. Yes they did, but not as a team in a formation. remember the games against Dallas or Colorado (or other western teams). They are skating teams, they start deep in their own zone a D-man having the puck all 5 men skating for the attack while moving the puck up the ice entering the offensiv zone as a unit. The Leafs are pinned to their own zone for a long stretch then somebody gets the puck and he skates, the rest following somehow. Sometimes he is behind the opponents D. Sometimes it is a 2 on 1 then they have a chance and if they do not score it is going the other way. Sometimes they dump the puck in. But they do not gain control. If they would skate as a team as I described before it is much more easy to make it through the neutral zone and you have more options.

      I like the additions. We have depth now. And we have a bunch of guys that have at least 40 point potential and a few more options in the middle. There are some question marks but a lot of these guys have something to prove. We added speed, skill, grit and some secondary scoring. Keep an eye on Kontiola, we have a real sleeper here. Let's hope he has no problem to adjust to the north american game because he really has the potential.
      Kadri will have some pressure now and that's good too. Now there is some extra time for our young guys to grow. Exept from Holland I do not see anybody to fill a full time role.
      Smart boy your son!
      Winnik is strong defensively and can play center and wing and is strong along the boards.
      Both has speed and can score. Santorelli can also play both wing and center and he actually scored more than 40 points in a season.

      Intriguing will be what the lines will look like.

  5. Though I feel that Gardiner has a higher ceiling, he reminds me of Jim McKenny (while the latter did more 'stops and starts' in my recollection, it should be something that Jake can pick up when the situation calls for it... he just seems to want to use his momentum to get back on the defensive side - even if it's not always successful). He does take some 'risks' that can lead to turnovers, but it seems to happen less often than you might expect, precisely because he has such a high skill set.

    I've been hoping that we would see a JVR-type contract and then give him more time (than the Flyers did) to help him reach his potential. I find it hard to believe there would be NO interest from other teams looking at that contract! It would be great if we give him some time to flourish, but I do wonder about that likes of Columbus' Ryan Johansen (yet unsigned RFA) who really caught my eye when I've seen him play. He really has a high ceiling with some grit, strength, size and skill... with our pipeline of young defensemen, I often wonder if management is waiting to use a Gardiner (or Kadri) on a player like Johansen - there's a player that would look good up the middle! If you have to give in order to get, that might be the kind of deal I could live with...

    Apart from such speculation, Carlyle seems willing to 'show him the ropes' and may just be the guy to help Gardiner round out his game... he may be 24, but he's still a bit inexperienced (with a late start and his early forward usage), so I anticipate steady progression for the foreseeable future and that bodes well to my eyes!

    1. There's no question Gardiner could still be a trade chip at some point, InTimeFor62. But for now, it's good that the Leafs will see if he can work on his game. (I like your McKenny reference, by the way. That may be more apt than my allusion to Brewer. McKenny was a gifted Junior player...many said second best to Orr among defensemen at the time as a Junior, but his play rarely seemed to meet his potential...)

    2. You are so right about McKenny, he ALWAYS seemed to leave you wanting more (even when he scored or survived a foray in front of his own net on the breakout). I remember the comments that made him Avis (to Orr's Hertz :), but you often wondered if he was actually 'trying harder' because of his perceived 2nd place standing!

      I only remember Brewer during his Imlach comeback year @ 40ish, and he was not the player my Dad remembered from the 60s, so he may well be a good referent, just not one that strikes home the way McKenny seems to...

  6. People here seem to forget that Gards had the best possession stats on a horrible possession team. If you got the puck, it's much more likely to taken away than if you never have the puck. The game seems to be shifting towards mobile defenders like Doughty or Subban, so keeping Jake at a VERY good price is one of the best moves this offseason.

    Jake's giveaways may get noticed a lot, but to me the positives outweight the negatives by a large margin.

    -Leaf fan from Finland