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Time to move Jake Gardiner….

Just as it was no doubt prudent not to gaze too far ahead when the Leafs were on a roll, we should likely not go overboard in thinking that the sky is falling after two rather uninspired efforts against Carolina and Philadelphia. It wasn’t realistic to expect the Leafs to continue their winning ways—especially given that they had slid into some of their old, familiar habits of late.

A road trip is upon us, and that will tell us a lot more about who the Leafs are—and can be.


Those who have followed my musings here at VLM over the years know that I have often written about my frustration at the very notion of trading away talented young players—defensemen in particular. Over the decades that I’ve followed the club, the Leafs have had their fair share of situations where a young players has been dealt and blossomed somewhere else. (The list includes Jim Dorey, Gary Nylund, Jim Benning and Al Iafrate, among others. That's a great old Dan Baliotti photo of Dorey, right.) Sometimes it was a question of rushing a young player too soon; on other occasions injuries were an issue.

So in reflecting on today’s subject, I’ve been sort of putting off making any kind of definitive statement when it comes to Jake Gardiner. This is a question I first raised a few weeks ago.

I don’t need to go over the full history again.  I’ll just re-state what we all know: Gardiner was the pleasant (and unexpected) surprise arising from the Beauchemin-Lupul trade a few seasons back. He impressed us all from the get go with his skating and skill.

Recognizing that he has not played 300 games in the NHL (the level many NHL coaches and other experts suggest is the fair time to start really assessing a young defenseman), it strikes me that Gardiner is a player the Leafs can afford to move.

I understand that he is a popular Leaf, and that many feel his ceiling is very high. But I just believe he should be further ahead of the curve by now.  And if the Leafs wait too much longer to move him, I wonder if the return will be what it might have been.

Why the focus on Gardiner, when the team has a range of other issues, including on the blueline?  Well, while he seems to pass the ‘analytics’ tests, I see a young player who may not be as coachable as I’d like to see.  The offensive prowess he demonstrated early on seems to have hit a plateau. While all defensemen make mistakes, I find he makes the same kind of mistakes too often.  I don’t know if he will ever become a physical player—which is fine, if he was otherwise sound and consistent in his own zone.  But he loses too many puck battles in the corners and around his net. And I wonder if he is as determined a player in his own zone as he needs to be.

Is Gardiner a player who will do everything he needs to, to get better? I don’t know. Will Gardiner mature and become a better defender with experience? Quite possibly.  Is it foolhardy to trade a young, talented defensemen that the Leafs have already signed to a significant contract? Maybe.

But I also wonder if the Leafs could acquire the kind of emerging forward that may help put them over the top, if they were prepared to move Gardiner while so many seem to see him as having a high-end future. 

To be clear, I don’t make this suggestion because the Leafs already have Rielly.  I’ve long said I have no problem with employing two, young, offensively minded puck-moving defensemen.  And I don’t say this because the Leafs are so talented on the blueline.  I think the Leafs are OK on the back end, but need to be a lot better.

That said, having Rielly on board does provide the Leafs with a player who may be a star defenseman some day.  Phaneuf still provides quality minutes most nights.  Franson seems to be in the midst of a bit of a renaissance. And while Robidas likely won’t be here in two years, we should have NHL capable depth in players like Polak, Percy and others now plying their trade with the Marlies.

In short, I think the Leafs could live without Gardiner. Few players are irreplaceable, and he is not—especially if Toronto received something noteworthy in return.

This won’t be a popular suggestion, I realize.  But I think it’s time for the Leafs to consider something they would not have even contemplated not that long ago.


  1. Hi Michael,

    the problem is that we don't know what they are. And we won't until the season is over. Look how they loose! Is that their face?

    What? Gardiner? Again?

    I suggested Kadri as the next topic at that time and somebody else suggested talking about the press (what I liked by the way) but it is the very much annoying Gardiner again who gives me a heart attack every time I have to see him but here we go again.

    And I have to step in at the beginning, you are seriously wrong with something here.
    Burke traded Beauchemin for Gardiner. The Ducks gave him Lupul because the Leafs are rich and could easily take on his salary. Everybody thought at that point that Lupul would never play again, The state of his health was so serious that everybody thought his career was over. Lupul was the pleasent suprise, not Gardiner. (Lupul had nearly the same salary as Beauchemin and Gardiner was on his EL deal)

    Determined is a word that doesn't fit well with Gardiner, in any situation. That is troubeling.

    Gardiner is not doing what he needs and he won't get better that way and he will never reach a high ceiling.

    Where do you think Robidas will be in two years?

    It is about the plan Shanahan will come up with after this season. The plan what to do with the core and what this team needs.

    One thing has to be clear, you are always talking how deep we can go in the playoffs and if the bar is high enough and such things but:


    We are far away from the top! It is about bringing the ship in the right direction, being patient and developing a way to make us a top team in the future.

    I think Gardiner should be traded. But the return might not be what we think.

    I would really like to know what you think happens with Robidas?

    For for the next years our D is set, but it is to weak. It has to be better. Dion has a seven year contract, Robidas will be here for the next two seasons, Polak has a contract for next year, Rielly will stay for life, Gardiner has a multi year contract and is not worth it and then ther is the question if we commit to another guy that we do not know who he is, but is strong in the moment.
    Percy needs a spot on that D next year and Holzer can be signed cheaply as a depth option.
    If you want to change something you only have the choice to trade Gardiner and Franson but you probably won't get much for Cody.
    I am talking about 8 D man for next year as it seems now and I am not even talking about help, something has to happen.

    So we have to consider our future, the depth and quality of our D and what we can get back in return.
    And we have to judge our prospects carefully and project them as good as we can to what they will be. To be able to make a decission for what is best for our future

    1. I agree that the Leafs are more than one player away from being a real contender, Marcus. The question may be: can they replace Gardiner on defense with a sound defensive defenseman- and can they obtain a forward who may be a key player as they build toward becoming a consistent contender.

    2. Perhaps they can. Would be good. Prieces for D man seem to be high perhaps they can get such a Forward.

      Why do you think Robidas won't be here in 2 years?

    3. I guess I'm more thinking that Robidas won't be a core player in two years, Marcus.

  2. You make a number of excellent points, Michael and I agree that Rielly's presence makes no difference to the decision to keep Gardiner (though his absence might). There are so many prospects in the pipeline that I think a 2 for 1 kind of deal could bring a significant upgrade on defense or the forward ranks.

    It seems that a lot of people still believe that Gardiner can thrive where he can be more 'instinctive' with his play, rather than 'cerebral'... the question may be: "Are the Leafs planning to allow for that kind of flexibility for a young player within their systemic intentions?"

    If yes, then he seems to be 'thinking' too much (and it doesn't appear to be a strong point for him) and needs more 'free reign' to allow the excellence we have seen in him previously. If not, then a system that would allow him that kind of freedom would be the kind of suitor with whom we could arrange a win-win kind of trade. Jake still has high value, but we may not be the right kind of team for his particular skill set, therefore, we have to make a decision and give him the chance to thrive elsewhere, while being satisfied that our team identity will move in the right direction with whatever return he may bring.

    I was totally ready to make a change and allow Percy to step in with his responsible, heady, high hockey IQ play, however, I just saw that he went into the boards in the Marlies game and took some time to get up (and was wobbly, to boot). If he's concussed (which seems likely) then I'm a little less motivated to make a change. Guess we'll have to see where he's at when the trade freeze lifts.

    1. Thanks for your comments on this one, InTimeFor62. Gardiner has ability, for sure. And he may thrive here or elsewhere. But as you allude to, the question might be: will he fit the team's identity when we are poised to be a strong team?

    2. I believe he would thrive under a Pat Quinn kind of coaching, not so much a systems-focused coach - guess we have to wait and see what the long-term plans will be in that regard (and I don't think he would thrive under Babcock, either).

  3. Yup Michael, I've been thinking about that one since you last brought it up. At that point I was a bit defensive (unlike Jake!), but I fell into that trap of worrying he might turn into a decent asset for another team. That's always a fool's game, because you have to evaluate what a player offers to your roster. It's up to the GM to figure out how another roster might benefit, in order to maximize trade potential.

    He just doesn't seem to be "getting it", in terms of the commitment level it takes to be a mid or top tier D-man in the league. It's one thing to not be a "heavy hitter", as lots of defencemen don't have that asset in their pocket. In Gardiner's case though, there's always been what I can only define as a reluctance to at least be an aggressive presence in his own end. This isn't some new phenomenon either. You expect D-core guys to mature a bit more slowly, but Jake's issues don't seem related to number of games played, and more with something intrinsic in his personality.

    His contract doesn't appear to be easily moveable at the term and dollar value, but I think both Jake and the Leafs need a change here.

    1. You always hate to give up a young player, especially one with blessed with skill. But he is prepared to do what it takes to be harder to play against in his own zone?

    2. But Michael, he is soft everywhere. In one of the more recent games he skated past some opponents in the offensive zone and took a shot on Goal. He wasn't stoping for the Rebound, he skated by the goal. The puck ended up on the left boards. Heskated behind the goal and skated to the battle where the puck was, he stood beside them doing nothing. Picking his nose. He didn't engage in the play and he didn't skate back to cover his position, he is a D man for god sake.

  4. I'm on the fence with Gardiner. I like Jake for many reasons but I'm not against a move that makes the Leafs better. We know what he can do offensively but playing on the Leafs, most of the time, means playing in your own end. We've all seen some odd decisions there with and without the puck, even when he's not pressured. As it seems to be getting worse, some have questioned whether he's been over-coached. Too many voices? There's no way we'll ever know. I believe he's still an excellent asset.

    He's certainly more confident driving the play, that's when Jake is at his best. He looked more himself against Chicago and I guess most believe in the 300 game rule. He often plays with the first line which we know don't give their D-men much support and is probably not the best situation for him. I'd prefer a stay-at-home Dman with that group but I won't go into player usage. In all fairness, there aren't a lot of choices. I have noticed he has a stronger game when they're playing well. Gardiner played some of his best hockey with Franson and that pairing hasn't been possible this year.

    1. Whether Gardiner would blossom with a different coach is a great question, Colleen. We do have new assistants this year, so he has had a new voice behind the bench, though Carlyle is still there, of course.

  5. I have made my point on this subject before and I have not changed my mind over the 30+ games this season. He has all the god given tools to be an absolutely exceptional NHL defenseman..except one.. and it really is the most important one. Hockey sense. He just doesn't have it. And I steadfastly maintain you cannot teach hockey sense. A player either has it and it it will mature and grow over time based on his learning experiences. Or he doesn't and he is destined to be one of those players that people say over time he just never lived up to his potential. That to me is Gardiner in a nut shell. 200 games or 300 games or 400 games he will not "get" hockey sense.

    I say trade him now while he still has good value before it is too late.

    1. I recall your earlier comments- thanks for posting, Pep.

    2. That hockey IQ debate is always a good one Pep, especially with D-men in the NHL. The defenceman with probably more instinct than anyone (right now) is Drew Doughty. Skilled..... for sure, by any measure. But beyond the great shot, crisp passes and timely hits, Drew also has that special measure of the elite; the ability to see the entire ice in an instant, watch the play unfold, and more times than not figure out what his key role should be, in a fraction of a second. You're right... you can't teach that.

      It is a gift, whether it be Bobby Orr, Borje Salming, Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer (yes, both on the same team!!), this level of D-man is like a quarterback that dictates all play. Not expecting Jake to carry the impact of those giants, but I sadly think his ceiling is lower than initially expected, and that he's not the "right coach" away from joining the ranks of the elite.

  6. Leafs Fan in MexicoDecember 22, 2014 at 9:45 PM

    Some good points all.

    Collen said it: "I'm not against a move that makes the Leafs better." I would only add the phrase "for a few years."

    My thoughts? I ve been calling for his trade for months. His value was higher at the beginning of the season then now because glaring deficiencies were not seen then as habitual. They are now and we all pretty much saw that, many through our blue tinted (aka rose colored) glasses.

    I don't like to say this but we shouldn't t trade Jake.... right now. Sit him a few games and see if he can get it through that cloudy noggin he can play more responsibly.... we have seen him do it from time to lets see if he is, as Michael questioned, teachable.

    Jake's no where near worth as much as he was earlier in the season and Russ is right, trading is a fools game. Fortunately, that works both ways so if he proves unteachable by trade deadline, lets see what we can fetch for him because if nothing else, it would seem more fools are dealing at the deadline than naught.

    Once again I really want to say how much I appreciate the thoughtfulness of VLM! thanks Micheal and all.

    1. His value may not be as high as it might have been, as you say, Leaf Fan in Mexico.

      Thanks for the kind words about VLM- and glad you stay in touch!

  7. Wow , what a great read, Michael . And a ton of feedback from your readers ...also fun reading . I really liked Percy in the preseason , but when the Leafs stumbled out the gate , the first guy to get the axe was Percy , then the team got better . Not saying there is any co-relation . Now, somebody wrote, Percy may be hurt. My fear is that if Percy is hurt, you don't have another D man in the system with much upside offensively . Looks like Finn is struggling in his first year of pro, and Loov and Nilson , and McWilliam ,are defence first guys , with little upside offensively . Maybe one of the other Marlies would be ok , but I really like Percy . He seems the polar opposite of Jake. He isn't as blindingly fast as Jake , but Percy can think the game big time. Jake has never been accused of that , and likely never will . When to trade a guy ? Who knows, really.

    1. It's so hard to "read" young defensemen, Rick. Percy may be really good some day, yet he may end up being just another OK guy. Tyler Myers was so impressive in his early days with the Sabres, then he was supposedly on the trade market and fans were frustrated with his perceived lack of progress.

      With Gardiner, he has talent, but I do wonder if he will get much better. That said, trading young D-men is almost always risky business, I realize.

  8. Nobody is untouchable - if I could trade Kessel for Crosby and Malkin I would. That goes without saying. But if we can't get a young amazing player for Gardiner (like Taylor Hall or Tarasenko, or even Matt Duchane), and at this point I'm pretty sure we can't, I wouldn't trade him.

    I've seen him take over games and play a physical brand of hockey and score and just push the play forward with force and if I see that a young player can do that I like to wait and see if he can do that consistently. There seems to be a switch that gets flipped and he becomes an amazing defenceman. There's now, also, unfortunately, a switch off button and I wonder if, at that 300 game mark, he isn't in a switched on position and remaining there. Or, in any case, if we can't trade him when he's hot for a better player than we could get now. The funny thing about us fickle Leafs' fans is that if he were playing consistently well for any period of time we would forget that he's tradeable.

    P. K. Subban and Eric Karlesson both look hopeless in their own end at times, and I wonder if, when all is said and done and they continue their offence-first game while Gardiner learns how to play defence under Carlyle and Horachek, our boy doesn't come out ahead.

    In other words, I like Gardiner and I believe in him and I think if we keep him for another year or so he may well become what we hoped he would. He's got size, he's got skill, and now he's got some mentors ahead of him (Polak, Robidas and not just Phaneuf) and good coaching. I say leave him be, keep teaching him and wait.

    1. The positives you well note are no doubt why the Leaf brass is keeping Gardiner, leafdreamer!

    2. leafdreamer's take on this perfectly mirrors my own. His mistakes are often very visible and seem to cost him dearly in the court of public opinion. He is arguably our best defenseman at clearing the zone though, and when the Leafs are playing bad this year, that's what you see: failure to clear our own zone.

      I say keep him unless he's part of a trade for something special.

  9. Why does a player with speed play the game at such a slow pace? If his brain is slower than his feet, then it's unlikely he'll live up to his potential. I personally don't believe he will, and he should be moved. I see him as the next Bret Hedican, an alright player that bounced around a bit that never quite lived up to his ability.

    1. I'm not sure if he's a slow thinker, or just one of those talented players that doesn't have a sense of urgency in his game. I also wonder if it's a money thing, with $20-plus million owed to a young man over 5 years helping to dull the voices of dissent. Today's big professional sports contracts are an odd animal, as some players seem to ignore the dollars and just grind away, while others appear to lose an edge, once the lottery winnings are guaranteed. I look at Jonathan Toews, with his new and deservedly gigantic contract. It never offered even a blip either way in his gargantuan work ethic and professionalism. He's been just pasted with head shots a few times this year with menacing blows, and there he is the next game, somehow back on his skates and playing at a high level. That's commitment! Not expecting Gardiner to be Toews, but some sense of urgency in his game is needed, especially at that dollar value.

      I would also move him, even if the returns aren't epic in proportion. It sends a message to the entire team about complacency, and Lord knows we see some lazy looking nights from the Leafs, in bunches.

      Happy holidays to all the posters, and Michael especially, as this is just a fantastic place to offer opinions, air grief, and attempt to lower the elevated blood pressure that the unique position of being a die hard Leafs fan offers. A fun topic might be what you'd want to offer the Leafs as a Christmas gift, whether it be a management or roster shuffle, or just using the current squad differently.

    2. Thanks for the kind words about the site, Russ. I appreciate your contributions and those of the many thoughtful posters here!

  10. Hi Michael

    I normally do not partake in trade speculation, as we have no control over the end result. However, this Gardiner Issue is such a lightning rod, I decided to try my hand at Satire. With apologies to VLM posters, who seem to favor trading Gardiner I have summarized comments (admittedly out of context) to help Dave Nonis with the "Gardiner Issue" by drafting a Trade Advertisement.

    Recently made available for trade by Toronto Maple Leafs

    Jake Gardiner

    Hard to Find Young Defenseman with significant upside/potential

    - all the god given tools to be an absolutely exceptional NHL defenseman
    - He's got size, he's got skill, and now he's had the opportunity to work with many different coaches.
    - If you can find the switch you can flip it and he becomes an amazing defenseman.

    An opportunity that is just One Magic Moment from happening.

    In the interest of truth in advertising there may be some blemishes but with proper nourishment these can be overcome. These include:

    - While he may never reach a high ceiling, think of the potential, and he has a controlled multi-year contract.
    - His record may be much better, as he is often forced to play with the first line where he makes odd decisions with and without the puck.
    - He may think too much and a situation that allows greater freedom and uses his offensive instincts may be the answer.
    - Some believe he will thrive on a team that has a system and does not play most of the game in their own zone and he will blossom with a different coach.
    - While it has been suggested that he lacks determination, commitment, grit, hockey sense and may be unteachable, most of these attributes are probably mental, and a good 'head doctor' may be able to fix.
    - While some may claim he gives them a heart attack, we suspect this is an exaggeration.

    Please provide a quality Defensive Defenseman and Future No. 1 Center or Best Offer.

    What will other GMs give

    While I am sure Most GMs and scouts have their own idea about Gardiner, Leaf nation has likely caused them to be very cautious about getting into this transaction as it will be very risky for their job. Accordingly, the Leafs lack of skill in developing young players will likely hurt them again.

    They will give:

    - Good player with high cap but limited period of high level play. A player like Chara, Staal could be had, but they need more than one top-notch player for a number of years to reach the promised land.
    - Similar players who have not been able to fulfill their promise (e.g. Yakupov) which may be trading one problem for another.
    - Help in overcoming next year's cap problem which may actually we worthwhile.
    - Give Leafs multiple replaceable players which the Leafs have no problem getting now

    My Take

    Gardiner is a very frustrating player on a very frustrating team. He does get the puck out of his own end rather than attempting to clear the puck aimlessly out of their own end. He appears to be following in the great tradition of being a scapegoat (e.g. Mahovlich, Murphy) when there are many players and management that should also be traded. After three years, there is little evidence that things have really changed much and it causes questions that I hope Shanahan is getting answers to.

    Little longer than I expected. Merry Xmas, Michael and VLM posters.

    1. Good to hear your thoughts, Ralph (RLMcC)- and Merry Christmas to you as well.

  11. Good read, ty. Although gardiners an analytics darling hes lacking the 2 attributes the fancy stats cannot measure, grit and brains. Watching his dayley multiple poor decisions and complete lack of courage must anger and deflate his teamates. I suspect dubas had a hand in his extension, another unearned, unnessecary burdensome move based on his play 2nd half of last season. Correct me if im wrong but we went 12 losses 14 and played ourselves outta playoff spot. I would say now to the trade deadline is the final audition for him and the rest of this core who for past 3 years have failed to deliver. If these guys cant comete giving 100% effort game in game out and stick to the system where were not so obviously outplayed more times then not we move on and trade them.

  12. Hello Michael,

    Would like to wish you and all my fellow VLM'ers a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

    I am so thankful to have found your site this past year and enjoy reading your articles and all the thoughtful comments that accompany them.

    At the moment, I would lean to keeping Gardiner.

    Based on his potential upside, I would like to see if he would do better under a different head coach.

    In the mean time, I would like to see him deployed on the PP as a FORWARD. There's no debate that he has offensive skills, perhaps giving him a chance to display them without the pressure of D-man defensive responsibilities would be worthwhile exercise?

    If he shows any ability as a F, perhaps he could be moved up there permanently. That way we keep a highly skilled player - one who could fall back in a pinch and play D in the vein of a Byfuglien in Winnipeg.


    1. Thanks for your comments regarding Gardiner, Wayne. (Would be interesting to know if Carlyle and staff have considered utilizing Jake up front on occasion...)

      And thank you as well for the kind words about the site. Glad you found us! Merry Christmas.

  13. I liked Jake Gardiner the first time I saw him play and believed he could eventually be the next Lidstrom. That probably will not happen from what we have seen lately but he has still not even hit the 200 game mark and could get a lot better. We know he can skate and he has skill so the sky is still the limit. It could be Jake is trying too hard because of the big contract, then he made even more mistakes and then he lost his confidence? That scenario has been played out many times with many players. How many times have teams given up too soon on a good player?

    Gardiner showed what he is capable of in the Leaf Bruin playoff series. Jake was flying and Bruins were backing up every time he carried the puck up the ice. The Leafs lost the last game but they would probably have lost 4-0 without Gardiner starting in game 2 of that series. If his play takes off right after the Leafs traded him it would go down in history as just another big mistake by a Leaf management which we have seen repeated too many times.

    I would also say that I have no problem with getting a big young skilled first line center for Jake but I would hate to see him go for a player on the downside of his career or a player who turns out not meeting expectations while Jake's career takes off. The JVR for Luke Schenn trade comes to mind. Or how about Nazem Kadri? Right now everyone is really happy with Kadri and talking about his great play and great defence but a year ago he was simply not getting the job done and a lot of people though he should be moved.

    I just think we still have to be patient with Jake. Last night he played a pretty good game against the Stars and if he keeps playing like that and given his age and experience and the talent and skill he has shown my guess is he will keep getting better.

    1. Thanks Alton- I know a lot of Leaf fans still see Gardiner as guy to build with.