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Jake Gardiner’s triumphant return…

Since Maple Leaf fans were universally calling for Jake Gardiner to be parachuted back into the lineup, my guess is everyone who was able to caught his much-anticipated return to the ACC against the visiting Lightning on Wednesday night.

(That was a nice win.  The Leafs showed some jump.  Lupul and Kadri set the table again in the first period.  The blue and white got some ‘balanced scoring’, as we like to say, and ran over the Lighting in a key encounter with one of a number of Eastern Conference foes looking for the same slice of  the standings pie…)

Gardiner showed his usual jump, made some solid defensive plays (including breaking up a dangerous two-on-one in the first period) and generally acquitted himself the way we came to expect last season in his break-out rookie season in the NHL. By the end of the game, he had garnered close to 20 minutes of ice time- and we know he can play a lot more than that.  Pre-injury, the guy looked like he was never winded.

Exactly why he was ‘stalled’ (held back, some might say) in the AHL will no doubt be a question for debate in the days ahead. (There are many theories:  he wasn’t healthy when he joined the Leafs earlier this season; Carlyle had concerns with his defensive readiness; the infamous agent tweet a couple of weeks ago…)  But we all knew he would be back once the team faced some injuries, started to lose games or other defensemen struggled with their games.  Some guys did start to struggle, the team was losing, and so Gardiner is back.  Conspiracy theories aside, Carlyle had been intent earlier, it seems, on not breaking up a winning lineup, though he did replace Kostka with Holzer a while back. 

In any event, Gardiner’s back—to stay.

Last fall, I wrote about his offensive potential (click to read more).  I’m sure we all saw it.  His point totals were good, especially for a first-year player, but he could have had, with any luck, many more goals and points a year ago.  I see no reason that he won’t deliver at a very high level in terms of production from the back end.  He has the skating skills, the instincts, the shot and the smarts to be a tremendous offensive defensemen.

Whether, as I’ve stressed here before, he will also stand out in the playoffs when free ice is harder to find and even relatively ‘timid’ (no one is really timid if they make it to the NHL) forwards finish their checks with authority, well, we’ll see.  He is fantastic at skating away from trouble, and that should stand him in good stead.  He will also need to be tough in the corners and in front of his own net, where battles for space, position—and the puck—are a constant come playoff time.

But all that said, it’s nice to see Gardiner back. He’s a gifted young player, and he showed a year ago (and all this season, when healthy, with the Marlies) that he should be an impact player with the Leafs.  He was, after all, one of the only Leafs most fans thought of as untouchable heading into this long-delayed season.

Hopefully he and Carlyle are on the same page, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be.  The brass—and Gardiner—will no doubt, publicly at least, emphasize how important his time with the Marlies under Dallas Eakins was, how he has improved his defensive play and how he was called up only when he was truly “ready”.

Things, however, are always exciting in Leafland, so observers will be looking for any signs of slippage in the coach-player relationship.

My guess?  All will be fine. 

Two points in the bag.  On to Buffalo.


  1. I'm pretty happy with the game. This Leafs team is different than last years team. They may get beat by a hot team (Winnipeg)or Boston and Pittsburgh, but they take the must win games from the weaker teams.

    Kadri's passes and puck distribution looked world class tonight. The one-motion recption and pass onto Lupul's stick, only 25 guys in the NHL can do that sort of thing. Kadri had another pass later in the game that made me gasp. I think his skill and compete level will overcome the lack of size and he will become a number one center.

    I was actually impressed with a few defensive plays from Gardiner. He has allot more grit than people think. They may have had Gardiner down in the AHl to perfect his defensive game. I'm not sure I want him with Liles, we will know for sure against Boston, but Liles and a prospect (not Rielly)or a pick should get a good two-way defenseman to play with Gardiner.

    I am still a little annoyed that we dealt Aulie as I think Aulie could have been a nice long-term fit.

  2. Kadri is displaying a big-time skill set- agreed, DP.

    We all like Gardiner's game. As I've discussed before, the next big hurdle will be his ability to cope with the intensity of the game at playoff time. But I'm guessing he will be able to adjust and compete the way he has to.

    You know I've commented on Aulie here before. Many Leaf fans don't like him and seemed happy to see him go. I was not among them. Thanks DP.

  3. Hi Michael,

    I think my first comment on your blog came last year regarding a question about Gardiner's potential, which I thought/think is very high. The kid has had impressive numbers, and as you mention, could have had a pile more goals and points last year (and tonight). However, his ability to calm the mood in his own end with smooth skating, crisp passes, and smart decisions makes him more than just a talented offensive defenseman, but potentially an elite blue-liner who will be here for a while, I hope, to play with the likes of Phaneuf, Reilly, and Gunnarson, along whoever else makes the cut in what should be an impressive defensive corp in the near future.

    I won't second-guess Carlyle's decision to wait on bringing Gardiner back up; it seems like perfect timing in a way (with Frattin and Lupul coming back, it's like we just acquired three impact players via trade or whatever just in time for a playoff push). I suspect Eakin's assessment of Gardiner was a factor, since Carlyle seems to like working with Eakins, and I believe he sincerely respects Eakin's player evaluations and ability to prepare players for the NHL. I think I've mentioned before that Eakins deserves a lot of credit for getting young players to reach their potential and play quality NHL hockey (Frattin, Fraser, Gardiner, Kadri, Holzer, Kostka, Orr, to name a few)-- can't wait to see Reilly playing for Eakins and the Marlies in the AHL playoffs this year.

    As has been the case for the last several years, Boston is the ultimate measuring stick of the Leafs progress though. Hopefully the Leafs can take a couple of points out of the back-to-back Boston games coming up. We'll need Grabbo, MaCarthur, Frattin, and JVR to step it up a bit and Reimer to play solid in the nets. Go Leafs Go!

  4. Looks like we are exactly on the same page today. Gardiner started last night's game with a rush right when the puck was dropped, showing confidence at the big level, and had a few more during the game. I guess we´ll see if he can be nasty and get people out of the crease and battle in the corners not only at playoff time but regular season too. I feel that's an area he could work on.

    I don't beleive in the conspiracy theories. Carlyle just didn't want to mess with the D when they were going well, along with the fact that Gardiner didn't look good when he came back from the concussion. The AHL did him good.

    If Kadri keeps his head in it, continues on to learn and develop his NHL game, we could have something very special.

    Lupul looks like he came back from injury without mising a beat, maybee better than he was. That line looked awfully good.

    Barring injuries I think the lines are set. They look good to me.

    I agree with DP on Aulie. Didn't like to see him go and thought the return was poor.

    So, no arguments from me today. Somtimes I like to play devil's advocate just to get things going. I got the feeling you were annoyed at me yesterday.

  5. A season ago, Matty D., I think we were all shocked at just how calm (you hit the nail on the head) this young player was/is on the ice. Nothing really takes him off his game. No panic, etc.

    I'm with you on the Carlyle point. We'll never know the full "real" story. But I'm happy to believe that this was all done with a rationale behind it.

    Rielly and Gardiner should make a formidable pair of defensemen (whoever they play with) with high-end offensive instincts and skill.

    Yes, Boston. I see cracks in their play of late. A good all-around team, but like anyone else, not unbeatable.

    First, the Sabres. Thanks Matty. Good to hear from you.

  6. Not annoyed at all, portuguese leaf. I appreciate your contributions here. I well know we (all of us here) will not always agree and it would be awfully boring if we always did. There was a comment yesterday about my post that confused me. The person seemed to be saying I was being unfair or critical of the goalies, when I have consistently said I'm a fan of Reimer's play and have never been an advocate of bringing in Luongo (for a host of reasons I've discussed here many times). I do believe one or both of these guys will have to "prove" themselves down the stretch as top goalies, or the organization may begin to look elsewhere in earnest- but I have given them full marks for their work this season.

    I can't say much more about kadri. Those who follow VLM know I have consistently said three things about his "situation"- 1) he should never have been back and forth, up and down the last two years. He needed lots of time with the Marlies 2) he needed to be allowed to "just play" in Toronto without constant scrutiny and criticism from the coaches over every mistake and 3) his name was "out there" in trade talks and the Leafs were prepared to deal him, in the right trade. Not anymore.

    That he is here and playing well is tremendous to see.

    As for Gardiner, yes, the conspiracy theory will be in full swing, but as I said to Matty, I choose to believe all is well in Leafland.

    Thanks Portuguese leaf. Good stuff as always.

  7. There certainly was a lot to enjoy in the Leafs' play last night, and Gardiner's finesse was a definitely a part of it. He showed a little more feistiness than we saw last year in our zone (a good thing), and displayed those amazing wheels when he jumped in on the rush. Was anyone else surprised when he suddenly appeared in the Lightning zone on that first offensive foray? I had the same sense of astonishment I had last year when he first showed his skill set.
    I've been a little hesitant to fully endorse him because of the way his effectiveness tailed off last year as the going got tough and the checking got tighter, but I liked the way he manhandled a couple of forwards deep in our zone last night. Carlyle might have been a little exasperated by both Gardiner and Liles leading a rush at the same time, but no harm came of it.
    Far from worrying about any coaching conspiracy or clumsiness, I'd say this appears to have worked out just about perfectly. Gardiner has obviously benefited from his time with the Marlies (as have all the other players Matty Dubbs mentions above).
    Another encouraging sign last night - Fraser knocking Conacher down after he'd crosschecked Phaneuf. We need more of that. I didn't like the multiple whacks taken at Reimer by Pyatt, I think, without retribution. I'm an adherent of the (very) old Ed van Impe school- one whack, and then you're on the seat of your pants.
    The exciting about this iteration of the Leafs is that when they're on, particularly as in the first two periods last night, they're a really good team. As I've said before here, the future's so bright, I'm wearing my blue and white shades. The next stretch will show us exactly where we are in the present.

  8. Carlyle could end up looking like a genius on the back end of all the Free Gardiner hub bub. I think we all realized that the Leafs start was unexpected. Above expectations, etc. We also knew that the Leafs were winning on the heels of some "puck luck" and solid goaltending. The penalty kill - amazing good. Even strength defense - just as bad, if not worse at times. Power play - not good. But they kept winning! I think maybe Randy saw this as an opportunity, in a short season with low expectations, to give an extended look (remember - short camp, no preseason) at guys like Fraser, Kostka and Holzer. Now he gets Lupul back (I think it was you that called it like getting a trade deadline player into the lineup), and yesterday (finally), Gardiner. One could argue he waited too long on Jake, but, lets not forget that he had a serious concussion and the team has been through that with Liles and Riemer, so the great start gave them some room to take their time. It was only one game against a not very strong team, but the defense finally looked like a group of 6 that could all be counted on. And we now know pretty well that Holzer is not ready and that Kostka isn't either, but probably closer than Holzer. Arm chair coaches like myself have to sometimes remember to give more credit to the coaches/managers. They watch the same games, and often know more than we do.

  9. Fraser is indeed part of what has given us a scrappy edge to our play, Gerund O'. (I remember Van Impe well. The ex-Hawk was one of many Flyers I loathed in the '70s...)

    Blue and white shades- I like that, Gerund!

  10. All good points, JB. I've been saying here for weeks this is the "experiment" year for Carlyle. He knows this is not the team he needs yet, and he's checking out various guys to see what they bring.

    Fans get impatient, but he knows what he's doing. I'm not saying he will always be "right", (I don't agree with everything he is doing) but I certainly don't question that he sees the big picture- short and longer-term.

    Good goaltending always make for a better coach!

    I think Matty D. mentioned that the Leafs getting Lupul, Frattin and Gardiner back is much the same as acquiring three significant players at the deadline. And that's true.

    And we need to remember that if any of the top-six defensemen are injured, Kostka and Holzer have now accumulated invaluable experience and can step into a role as needed. Maybe even Komisarek, (not sure what his status is as I write this).

    A;ll hopeful things. Thanks JB.

  11. I recall the comment that irked you yesterday Michael, however I interpreted it as directed at the fan base in general, not at your particular position, which has been consistently fair and measured with respect to the goalies. That criticism of the fan base crept into my comments as well, a fatigue with a general tendency of fans to excessively blame the gaolers for poor team play, and conversely give them too much credit when the team plays as it should. I cannot speak for the writer however, only how I chose to interpret his words.

    By the time I am able to write my thoughts I am finding, especially lately, that the post and comments have covered what I had wanted to say. I can only reiterate, the addition of Gardiner, Lupul and Frattin are indeed impactful. Now that we see what happens when he is paired with Lupul, I guess we should start thinking about Kadri in terms of that long sought after big center. I know Kadri is not big, but did that stop Gilmour from excelling as a front line player? And with Gardiner’s apparently improved defensive play, I am a much greater believer in Jake’s potential than I was at the end of last season.

    In terms of personnel and development strategies, we should probably consider the provenance of the current difference makers on the Leafs’ roster and how they were acquired. Are any of them big name free agents? It appears that the likes of Kadri, Lupul, Frattin, Gardiner and so on were draftees and trade pieces, although Lupul was acquired with the rights to a high quality, low cost free agent in Beauchemin. College free agents Bozak and Scrivens are a separate matter, a different category from the Brad Richardses out there. Now with the new collective agreement teams wishing to resign get a leg up in terms of an extra year of term to offer – no doubt key elements in the Ducks resigning Getzlaf and Perry, two players I am sure the Leafs would have liked to offer. It appears that that trend will continue, high end free agents will never enter the market as their existing teams will lock them up long term.

    What is a general manager to do? Evidently, development and trade, two options which go hand in hand. Players who have developed nicely will either fit in with your team or will make good trading pieces should the occasion arise. I think now, more than ever, the free agent route has been closed off, with the exception of savvy signings like Jay McClement for example, effective players who slip through the cracks and become available for some reason or another. I noticed that lately Dave Nonis has been acquiring as many draft picks as he can, a strategy which makes sense in relation to the free agent reality. Improvement will most likely take place through effective drafting and development which either gives you a player you can use or trade for one you can use. The more draft picks you have, and the more quality undrafted free agents you can sign the more you find ones that can succeed and the more flexibility you have to trade for those missing pieces of the puzzle. I can only see an enhanced role for amateur and professional scouting and development personnel, particularly at the AHL level. More than ever, this is where future Cups will be won or lost.

  12. Thanks for that, Bobby C.. (And thanks for a possible clarification of another comment posted here yesterday. Perhaps I mis-read the intent...)

    I am in agreement with the thrust of your post, as usual, Bobby. Beyond pointing out how the returning players will no doubt help (which we all agree with), it well sets out a course that most GM's will have to follow to achieve success in the "new NHL". While successful contending-team GM's have often been able to acquire impact players at the deadline in the past, the new CBA may make this more difficult in future. (Our Leafs have not been able to attract big-name UFA's since CuJo, unless I'm missing someone, so we should be used to this...) The Anaheim signings this week illustrate your point emphatically.

    There will, as you well note, always be opportunities for the shrewd lower-profile, McClement-style pick-ups- guys who do more than just fill out the roster. But yes, drafting (and accumulating draft picks) along with proper development of players will be even more important than ever before. Assets will be key, and to the credit of Nonis' predecessor, the Leafs have built up assets in recent years.

    Trading for the right pieces, using some of the assets, will be crucial as well. The timing of those deals will be worth watching. When will Nonis feel is the "right" time to make a move to get this team over the top?

    Thanks Bobby. Great stuff.