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Jake Gardiner sits again: just a blip or a bigger issue emerging?

Most VLM commentators here over the years have been very positive about what Jake Gardiner brings to the Leafs.  We all recognize that he can skate, moves the puck well, contributes points from the back end and can play significant minutes if needed. He is a confident young player and, at the age of 24, surely has his best years ahead of him. 

Most NHL defensemen mature a bit later (late 20s, in this day and age?) than most forwards. Gardiner is still well shy of the 300 game plateau, a marker than many in the “business” believe is a demarcation point when it comes to truly assessing what a defenseman will be at this level.

Like many of you, I’m loathe to see a team give up on a young defenseman—especially one with obvious talent. Sometimes those players are traded away and they blossom elsewhere, though we can’t really say that has happened to the Leafs lately.

But here we sit, very early in the new NHL season.  Four games in, Gardiner has been a healthy scratch twice already. I know, in this market, we are prone to over-react to every little thing but given that the organization signed Gardiner to a significant long-term contract in the off-season, this seems at odds with the emphasis on youth and skill that Shanahan has brought to town.

The decision by Carlyle to sit Gardiner can be debated, and it will be, especially in Leafland.  It may simply be that the coaching staff (my sense is the new assistant coaches were part of this decision; this isn’t just Carlyle) believes Gardiner had been the least effective Leaf rearguard in the first couple of games, and they wanted to get Franson in the lineup once he was healthy.

Someone has to sit, right?

Everyone agrees Percy, though more difficult days are likely ahead for the rookie, has earned his time thus far.  Phaneuf is not in this discussion.  Rielly could have been a consideration, but I doubt they would make that move with the sophomore defenseman. Polak has played key minutes thus far, and provides the defense-first approach Carlyle likes.  Robidas hasn’t been perfect but is still getting healthy and I think the coaching staff want him to be that experienced blueline leader. So Gardiner was the odd man out.

The decision does beg the question, however, as to whether something else is afoot.  While we might tend to think otherwise, the fact that Gardiner has signed a deal at what some may feel is a reasonable contract number does not preclude the possibility that the Leafs could in fact deal him.

But again, is this just Carlyle sending the proverbial “message” to the still young Leaf defenseman?  In two months, this may all be forgotten and Gardiner may be playing exactly the way Leaf fans—and Carlyle—hope he can.

Besides the need to be harder on the puck around his own net and in the corners, the one issue I have raised here with Gardiner is “coachability”, as in: is he a player that will take input from his coaches seriously? Or is he someone who likes to do what he does best, which is skating and moving the puck?

It seems like every year, almost every team, before the trade deadline, is either looking for a shutdown defenseman or a puck-moving D-man.  Gardiner not a shutdown guy but is certainly someone with offensive skills.

I’m still not sure Rielly’s presence mean we can’t have another puck-moving defenseman, as some have suggested. But I do wonder if Carlyle has already grown frustrated with Gardiner—again.

In your view, should Gardiner be in the lineup? If so, who should be sitting?  Is Carlyle just trying to get Gardiner going, or is there more at play here?

Realistically, we’re going to need more than the seven defensemen we have on the roster right now, because of injuries and the natural ebb and flow of a long NHL season. But just a few games into the campaign, with the Leafs' record at two wins and two losses, there are questions already.


  1. I wouldn't worry too much about it. I saw Polak take a puck off his arm and said to myself, "Oh there you go. He probably won't be able to play. Gardiner is going back in next game."

    It's hard to keep a full stable of defense-men healthy. I am sure Gardiner will get his chance, Percy could regress etc. Lets just hope Gardiner brings his A game.

    Gardiner is also a slow starter in the beginning of the season and ramps it up for the end so no big deal with how things are going.

    1. Gardiner is a slow starter, DP. Will be interesting to see if this is just a minor speed bump.

  2. I agree with DP--Gardiner starts slow and gets a bit hesitant, tries a fancy play etc. We've seen him scratched at the beginning of the season before. I'm glad the Leafs have emphasized the importance of good communication in this circumstance. A young player shouldn't be trying to figure it out on his own.

    There have been some speculation about Toronto looking at Eric Stall which mentioned Gardiner and Kadri as possible trade pieces, but it seems there have always been rumours about Jake and Nazem.

    1. As you suggest, teams have likely been interested in Gardiner and Kadri for a long time, Colleen. The Leafs need developing young players, but I suppose anyone could be traded if the return was right.

  3. As you and DP have said... it's a bit of everything and 'there's nothing new under the sun' (with a media magnifying glass intensifying the heat on the situation).

    Given that Jake seems to be a slow starter who 'ramps it up' as the season progresses, this may be one of the best times to 'get his attention' early on (with Percy playing to such a competent level). I think the coaching staff wants to instill some responsibility in Gardiner (like we have seen previously with Kadri - who seems to have bought in to simplify some high-risk aspects of his game so far this season).

    There is so little an NHL coaching staff can do to 'get the attention' of their players that I have no problem with a benching for a few (even after a new contract). Of course, there could be more afoot, like a trade, but that doesn't mean it is Jake in the crosshairs. Perhaps, somebody wanted a good look at one of the other D-men (like the recently injured Franson), however, this may just be a clear message for the young man to 'buy in' to the program a little more often than we've seen so far this season.

    1. I agree, InTimeFor62, that this is a good time of year to send the message, as it were. Gardiner has lots to work on, like virtually all young players, but he can be a valuable player.

  4. Leafs, I thought played well tonight. Obviously, though, the Jake Gardiner situation is a concern. But I've really been impressed with the P's: Percy and Polak. Polak made two nice defensive plays on one shift. Reimer good again, challenging everyone, even on a breakaway! Now, if Bernier can get going, this team might surprise you! They're young, and tonight they were full of energy! That's what I like to see!

    1. I think we were all wondering if Polak could be that dependable defensive defenseman we needed, The Sports Scott. So far he has been, for the most part. Percy may struggle at some point, but he has been impressive.

      Bernier should be fine, and if so, it would be good to have two netminders who can win games.

  5. Hi Michael

    There are certain type of coaches that need to have a "whipping boy" that they utilize as a "motivator" for the team to get a message across. I am sure you remember how Imlach used Mahovlich, Walton and McKenney. Interestingly enough they were similar flashy offensive players who sometimes were perceived as having defensive deficiencies. Sound familiar? Kessell and Kadri have also had their share of this treatment from Carlyle.

    I continue to view Gardiner with significant upside and would hate to see this happen elsewhere. The present approach is certainly not increasing his potential trade value. Yes, he has defensive issues, but care needs to be taken not to remove the Paul Coffey capabilities he possesses.

    If he is truly considered uncoachable as a defenceman, I would like to see him tried as a Center. There may be a Red Kelly in that uniform?

    Over the past few years, I have seen Eric Staal play regularly on SportSouth. He has been the backbone of Carolina, but his skills appear to be in decline and he has become injury prone. The Leafs would likely be repeating the mistakes of the past by bringing in a star player at the end of their career. He makes more sense to a true Stanley Cup contender.

    Perhaps a pool should be started as to who lasts longest - Carlyle or Gardiner?

    1. Yes, I well remember "The Big M", Walton and McKenny, Ralph (RLMcC)- all talented guys who struggled under Imlach.

      My concern around Staal (if those trade rumours are even plausible) is exactly what you cite: age, injuries and declining performance. The Leafs have too often in the past acquired excellent players past their best before date.

  6. totally different perspective as an outsider... these players continue to get paid when they're benched right? when they're a healthy-scratch, they still cash their paychecks? man, i wish my supervisor would say 'dr. alex, you took a little too long doing those fillings the other day... i'm afraid you're gonna have to sit at home the next few days and give some mental-thought to your technique. just come in on friday to pick up your regular paycheck. sorry for the punishment!' hehehehe.

  7. Hi Michael,

    the clue with Gardiner is hidden in your second phrase: ...he can skate, moves the puck well...

    No, he does not move the puck well. It's the myth of the puck moving defenseman.
    I talked with Colleen about it in detail a few month ago (maybe you recall). His decission making is bad. There are two signature situations. One is he has the puck around his goal and wants to make the pass, he has two options one winger who is free and the centre coming through the middle who is heavyly forechecked by an opponend. Gardiner makes the pass to the centre who is in trouble but is perhaps not even aware of it. That leads in the most part to the typical Gardiner turnover.

    And then there is this one: He starts behind our goal, beats the first forechecker easily and than skates along the left boards missing a few passing opportinities. At the blueline the opposing RW pressures him to the boards but does not attack, at the red line he is joined by the Center who does the same and at the other bluie line the RD awaits him while he is back pressured by the two Forwards. The only chance he left himself is to dump it in insted of turning it over directly while the rest of the team is at a stand still on the blue line because Gardiner was the last man and he slowed everything down and they have no chance to be dangerous on the forecheck. He destroyed not only a good attack but he guarantees the other team a nearly uncontested breakout. This is stupid, but everybody loves him becaused it is so nice watching him flying down the wing.
    He did this multiple times in the Boston series and these are signature plays, feel free to look for them in the two games he played.

    But here it comes: yesterday Peter Horacheck was a guest on Leafs Lunch and they asked what they do with him and what the issues are. And Peter said he sat down with him viewed some video and discribed exactley this type of situations where he has to work on his decission making and puck moving. So they managed to come to the same conclusion, but I ask myself what they have done before because Carlyle knows this since two years. But now we know what they did and we will see if he is coachable.

    Being a good skater and being able to move the puck is good but you have to know when to move the puck and when to skate.
    And then we have the defensive issues he has, wich you already mentioned.

    If you play on this level where everything is so even you have to grow consistently and work on your mistakes. Everybody knows everybody so well that they will use your weak spots against you.
    And Gardiner is so easy to read and take advantage of. And every team defends him in These situations the same way. They are not suprised at all.

    Franson is similar. He knows he can not move quick but he always reacts to late instead of being proactive (on the defensive side). If he is on the ice I would always attack the Leafs blue line on his side.

    You said yesterday I am not a Franson guy. But here is the deal. You need diffrent types of players in your lineup. You said Gardiner and Rielly can be in the same lineup. Yes they can. But what do you surround them with? You have Rielly your quick skating offensive guy who is not particularly strong on the defensive side but okay. Gardiner is a similar type of player but weaker at both ends. And then you have Franson who is deadly on the powerplay but a threat to yourself in any other part of the game. And that is too much because you would need three guys to clean up their mess.

    I have no problem with Gardiner sitting a few games and it is not a big deal. Franson is the other one to sit instead. For now.

    You mentioned Holland on sunday, I hope Carlyle will give the fourth line more ice time. The played only 5 minutes sunday and yesterday and you can barely assess their play when they do not get enough ice time. I hope Carlyle will use them. If you use the 4th line in that way, bring back Colton!
    And there is no reason to not trust them.

    1. Hi Marcus- it's true that it's natural to simply say, as I often do, that Gardiner is good at moving the puck, etc. I think this is because we can all see the natural skill set that he has.

      But this is why I keep raising the "coachability" question. I think that will, in part, determine how good he will be.

      He may have a high ceiling, I really don't know. But I don't think he's in the category of the truly great defensemen who were offensively gifted (Niedermayer, etc.). Most of those guys, you could see that in their game by now.

      Will he figure things out and take his offensive game to the next level, or simply rely on the same natural skills that got him to the league?

      I'm also, like you, concerned about fourth line utilization, because, as you cited, playing five minutes a game is not enough to make fair assessments.

  8. After the things Horacheck said we will be able to judge if he is coachable. As you know I think it is a smart question.

    No he is not near one of the true great defenseman you mentioned. Rielly is a bit nearer.

    If he doesn't take his overall game to the next level it is possible he is not longer a part of this team.

    I don't know what their plan is. They have to set things up for the future. Rielly is our defensive corner stone for the future. Dion has a seven year deal he will certainly stick around. Polak and Robidas are stopgaps. Percy seems to be an important part for the future. And in two or three years when Robidas and Polak are gone Loov and Nielson may be ready (they seem to be NHL bound). We will see how Finn plays as a pro. And then we need a plan for Franson and Gardiner. What are their future ways?

    I really like the way Holland plays. I would like to see him more often. And Carlyle needs to play his fourth line. They are capable and they should play. If he makes the mistake not to use the 4th line, it will cost us. You need all four lines.

    Ah something comes to my mind: I am really sad that they drafted so bad in the first round in 2011 when they picked Biggs. It is a shame we wasted this pick. This is really sad

  9. Good Morning, Michael,

    It was not long ago that the Leafs were scratching for six serviceable defensemen to fill the roster. Now we are discussing the merits of benching Gardiner because one of our bright young prospects has earned a place through stellar performance. Defense has become a much brighter light in the Leafs future with Percy up with the big club and prospects of the ilk of Granberg, Loov, Nilsson and Finn, to name a few, waiting in the wings.

    Gardiner presents a particular problem. There does not seem to be any question that he is gifted with an abundance ot hockey talent but many question his defensive work in his own end.

    That brings me to wonder if they should consider doing a Red Kelly with Gardiner. This is not a new idea as it has been kicked around previously but I think this is a perfect time to revive it. Gardiner looks like a natural centre with his stick handling and passing skills and centre is probably the Leafs thinnest position. It may be that utilizing Gardiner in this way could be of great benefit to both the team and the player.

  10. I wonder, Pete Cam, if the coaching staff would ever consider this. My sense, from a distance, is that they see Jake as a defenseman, and are determined to work with him to make him better in his own zone. But we both remember the Kelly move to centre, and he was tremendous there. Maybe the difference is that Kelly was a Norris winning defenseman and seemed to transition seamlessly into his new role. Thanks Pete.

  11. Jake Gardiner has all the skill set to be a VERY good dman in the NHL. Unfortunately that comes packaged with an AHL, at best, hockey sense. You cannot teach hockey sense. You can drill systems into a player but you will never teach Gardiner what Morgan Reilly already has. Jake's head is down and he wants to skate everytime with the puck. When he has his head up he does not make the smart play near as often as he should. You can almost tell he is thinking "What did they tell me to do in this situation"?? Reilly has his head up and instinctually makes the better more often than not. Gardiner is now 24 years old and shouldn't be "just a prospect" anymore. He should be starting to show us what he has. And in my opinion, and unfortunately, I think he is doing exactly that.

    1. While Gardiner has not played a lot of NHL games, Pep, I agree that he should be pretty much past the "prospect" stage. That said, he may still be adjusting to the game at this level. This is an important year in terms of showing he can bring his game to a higher level. Skill, determination, hockey sense- all these things combine to make a really good player.