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Jake Gardiner and the offensive potential lurking just beneath the surface

For those who have asked about it, here is a link to the new podcast entitled "Leaf Matters" that I am co-hosting with Matteo Codispoti from We Want a Cup.  Click on the link below if you're interested in listening to the inaugural episode.  It will take some time to work out the kinks, but hopefully you will enjoy our work in the weeks to come.

Link to Leaf Matters podcast, episode #1


All Leaf fans are aware of Jake Gardiner’s skill set—the effortless skating style, how he sees the ice so well, the fact that he can literally skate away from potential trouble, etc.— and are naturally excited about all of that.  We also know that he is still, like any young defenseman, improving and working on various elements of his defensive zone play. That will be one of the challenges facing Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins as he strives to help make Gardiner a solid all-around NHL rearguard.

I’ve shared my observation here at VLM before (not a sentiment shared by all Leaf followers) that Gardiner lacks the kind of physicality that would be a nice added dimension to his overall game.  But I acknowledge that I shouldn’t be fussy.  Scott Niedermayer was not the world’s most physical defenseman and he had a nice little Hall-of-Fame career, right?  (I just hope that, when the games get tough in the springtime every year, Gardiner has the game to overcome the attention—and the battering—he will get every night in the playoffs, because teams will try to wear him down and take away his effectiveness.)

The one thing that we maybe didn’t see last season from Gardiner was earth-shattering offensive numbers.  That said, we didn’t expect the young man to even be in the NHL at this time a year ago.  So his season-ending total of 30 points on 7 goals and 23 helpers was impressive for most NHL defensemen, and especially noteworthy for a first-year player right out of college.

But what I’m really talking about was not just the raw number— which happened to be 30 points.  I’m talking about his potential impact in terms of offensive production.  We started to see that impact last season in the opposition zone.  I’m not a stats person, and I’m sure many of the well-versed advanced stats specialists could break all this down much more effectively than I can.  (I just write about what I have seen or now see, past and present.)  But I do know that last season, there were many occasions where Gardiner set up a teammate, or blasted a shot from the point that clanged off the post or hit the goalie from fairly point-blank range.  He didn’t score his first NHL goal until well into the season, as I recall, but you just knew that as last season evolved, he was eventually going to see the puck start going in the net, and the points would come.

That’s exactly what happened.

When you have those kinds of offensive skills and can move the puck so smartly—and quickly—and have a strong shot like Gardiner, you will, over time, get your share of goals.  You'll also create a host of scoring opportunities for your teammates as well.

What can Gardiner ultimately be as an offensive defenseman, setting aside any mild defensive issues he might have?  I don’t know for sure, but if I had to guess, he is a young man capable of 20 goals in a season, and 40 assists - especially if he were playing on a team with a bit more skill and “finish” than last year’s version of the Maple Leafs had.

So far this season with the AHL Marlies, he is putting up some fairly nice offensive numbers (though he is a minus 3), as is his former college teammate Justin Schultz with the equally “loaded” Edmonton farm team in Oklahoma City.  Only 22 (like Gardiner), Schultz already has 15 points and is a plus 6 after 10 AHL games - his first games as a pro.  Gardiner has 5 points in 8 games.

We can always find flaws in anybody’s game (I mentioned in a recent post that Gardiner, in some ways, reminds me a bit of former Leaf legend Carl Brewer, who was a heck of a defensemen), but my guess is we’re looking at a huge upside in Gardiner.  He should only get better.  I don’t know if he can become even more poised on the ice because, well, pressure doesn’t seem to have any impact on him at all. He doesn't get rattled and can seemingly skate all night without getting winded.

And while, as I mentioned above, there will be some things in his defensive game that will require attention and commitment, he has so much quality in his game this should be a player Leaf fans can celebrate and sit back and enjoy for years to come, including his putting up some impressive offensive point totals as well from the back end.  He just might put up the kind of "stats" that we haven’t seen in these parts for a while. Unlike our old friend Tomas Kaberle, who earned a ton of assists most years in his Maple Leaf hey-day, this young man is not afraid to shoot, which should make him less predictable- and doubly dangerous.  A little bit of Bryan McCabe and Al Iafrate, maybe (who both had some really good offensive years in Toronto) but less mistake-prone.

How do you you see Gardiner's career unfolding with the Leafs?


  1. Michael,

    My only hope for Gardiner as a Leaf is that they finally let a defenceman with an unlimited ceiling talent wise. Develop at his own pace. Do not rush him into top 4 minutes against the leagues best players, while playing on a mediocre to bad hockey team. As a fan of the Leafs, I have seen that play out far too many times already. I pray that they shelter his time on the ice, on the third pair in situations that they believe that he can exploit offensively. I do not care if he is better possibly than someone else on defence right now. That tells me that your other 5 guys aren't good enough and you need to go acquire another top 4 guy.

    We just saw first hand how they rushed Schenn into the lineup, then immediately into 20+ minutes a game. Surprise, surprise when it turned out that he wasn't really ready for that role, management and fans got frustrated with him. I absolutely do not want to see this again. With Gardiner or with young Rielly. I really don't.

  2. I well remember how the Leafs handled another highly touted and very talented offensive defenseman- Jim Benning - in the early 1980s. He should have been - and could have been - a much better player than he turned out to be with the Leafs. It was all about undue expectations, poor coaching and horrible development practices.

    You said it perfectly. Thanks Jim.

  3. Michael,

    I agree with you and Jim that Gardiner's deelopment must be closely monitered. I think this has happened to a certain extent. Wilson (to his credit) rarely put him in situations where he would be overwhelmed. A goodly number of his minutes were against 3rd and 4th liners as well as on the power play. I believe he also sat out 7 games where he got a chance to observe the game from the press box.

    It was a great idea to send him to the Marlies at the end of the season. It gave him a taste of professional playoff hockey and also the chance to work with an excellent coach in Dallas Eakins. That his Marlie stint has continued during the lockout can only be of benefit to him.

    Gardiner has the tools to become an elite offensive defenseman. I think the defensive side will develop with experience.

    Below is a link to a clip showing all of his goals last year. It is well worth a look. I was at the Buffalo game where he scored his 360 degree goal, one reminiscent of Bobby Orr. The talent is there. With the proper development and dedication he could become a mainstay of the back line for years to come.

  4. Gardiner is young and has the kind of natural talent you don't see every day, PeteCam. I agree with you that patience is importance, along with proper approaches to developing not only what he is, but can be some day.

    Thanks for the clip. What you saw in person in Buffalo is an example of what's in the tank. Once he "knows" the league better (and that, again, will take time), his many attributes will come together. That's why I think his offensive upside is All-Star caliber.

    If the rest of his game develops with experience, as you say, he can be a dominant player. Thanks PeteCam.

  5. Toronto has a history of appointing a young, unproven player as its new team saviour, and when he inevitably falters, turning on him before - usually - trading him. Gardiner has some great skills, but it's clear he needs to improve his defensive skills and some toughness. He doesn't have to be a banger - just able to knock a few guys off the puck now and then, to complement his great skating skill.
    If allowed to develop at a reasonable rate, I think Jake will be one of our top guys in two, maybe three years. By that time Eakins may be coaching the club, and great things may be unfolding. (A bit over the top, I know, but you have to be an optimist to be a Leaf fan!)

  6. It's true, Gerund O', there are things Gardiner can certainly improve upon- and also build on. With the right kind of development, nurturing and coaching, he could be a star.

    We will see if history repeats itself, or if we handle this situation better than we have too many times in the past...Thanks Gerund.

  7. Jake improved constantly throughout his first pro season. His 7G 20A total over his last 50 games projects to about a 45 point year. That is what Eric 'The Anointed One' Karlsson totaled in his second year.

    Jake actually outscored Karlsson in his rookie year 27-26.

    I know there is an age difference , simply comparing their first year or two of professional hockey out of curiosity.

  8. Two outstanding young talents for sure, Bmaximus. Thanks for chiming in.

  9. Hi Michael,

    I started reading your blog last year, and I've found it so refreshing to see posters converse with the level of respect they do here. Thanks for making this forum available!

    As for Jake, I was impressed early on with his offensive abilities, cool demeanour, and of course, his potential. I'm pleased with the way he's been handled so far by the Leafs, and I believe his stint in the AHL playoffs last year and his playing there now, during the current lockout, will prove to contribute positively to his confidence, humility, and over-all game.

    As others mentioned, it could be bad news for him to be rushed into a top role (in terms of minutes and opposition) with the Leafs, but instead, he is now playing with the Marlies, where he has clearly taken on (and earned) a leadership role. I think its bodes very well to hear Dallas Eakins praise Gardiner's work ethic and dedication to improving his game, despite already having a spot reserved on the big club.

    I expect very good things from Gardiner. I only hope that the the Leafs will have more players to compliment him and help contribute to a winning culture. Otherwise, Gardiner may not reach his lofty potential.


  10. Agreed, Matty. It's good to see Gardiner continuing to work hard despite having a spot locked up with the Leafs.

    He brings a talent level we have not often seen on our blueline. If they develop him properly, there is no reason he can't be a standout.

    I'm glad you found the site, Matty, and I hope you post again. Thanks.