What Should the Leafs Do With Jake Gardiner?

Regardless of team, regardless of year, there always seems to be one player that comes from well back of the pack and makes a serious charge at an NHL roster spot. For the 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs, that player appears to be highly-touted defenseman Jake Gardiner.

With Gardiner charging hard for a roster spot, what should the Maple Leafs do with him?

Before considering the options, it might be wise to consider the larger context of Gardiner’s career prior to training camp. This year’s edition of McKeen’s Hockey Yearbook provides a scouting report which details what Gardiner brings to the table; quoted in part, it says:

.. a skilled, mobile blueliner .. played forward up until his senior year in high school .. swiftly reaches a blistering top gear thanks to natural, effortless stride .. adeptly creates space for his shot and is a talented passer .. gradually adding muscle to a lean frame and is learning to better use his skating to sustain a positional edge defending 1-on-1 .. also playing the body more effectively, though still suffers lags in intensity and can be too soft and accommodating .. blossomed as a puckmover last season, displaying improved poise and decision making ..

Gardiner’s skating and puck skills are identified as key skills in this particular scouting report, one with which Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke would no doubt agree, based on his comments on Gardiner:

“This guy is mobile. He does real good things with the puck at high speed. Skating is his best attribute.”

Interestingly, Gardiner’s offensive gifts haven’t always been so apparent in his point totals. 2010-11 was Gardiner’s last season at the University of Wisconsin and he put in a truly remarkable year, recording 41 points in 41 games and finishing behind only forward Craig Smith in total shots made. His plus-21 rating was also the second-best total on the club, and the highest of any blue-liner.

Those totals represented sizable increases from the previous year, a year in which Gardiner recorded less than one-third as many points (13) and played a minimal role on the power play. Gardiner still led the team in plus-minus (plus-25) but finished fifth in scoring among defensemen. Interestingly, he also led the Badgers in short-handed goals, notching a pair while the team was down a man, so the sizeable increase year-over-year may in large part be attributable to a change in role rather than a leap in development.

Drawing from this, it is possible to surmise that the Leafs’ have a player with a deeper degree of experience than his 10 professional games would otherwise indicate. The 21-year old has three seasons of college hockey under his belt, and it seems reasonable to conclude that he played a significant role in all situations at some point during his time with the team.

All of this would seem to indicate that Gardiner possesses the resume to make the leap to the NHL pretty much straight out of college. Yet, things aren’t that simple. The linked article containing Burke’s quote above notes that the Leafs’ G.M. is considering keeping eight defensemen on the team in order to keep Gardiner out of training camp. Where would Gardiner slot into that group of eight? Certainly, he wouldn’t play ahead of Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, or summer acquisition John-Michael Liles, all of whom will hold down top-four roles on opening night. Keith Aulie, paired with Dion Phaneuf for much of last season, seems likely to reprise that role based on what has happened in training camp, so that leaves two spots in the top-six for Gardiner, Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson and Cody Franson. Assuming the Leafs are willing to scratch both Komisarek and Gunnarsson on the season’s opening night, that still leaves Gardiner as the probable sixth defenseman in a best-case scenario.

Additionally, the minutes Gardiner would pick up at even-strength as the club’s number six guy probably wouldn’t be supplemented with much special teams work. Rookies rarely get broken in on the penalty kill, and with the amount of pressure to improve the Leafs’ work in that department, it seems unlikely that Ron Wilson would entrust regular duty to a player like Gardiner – a player whose greatest strengths at this point are offensive, and greatest weaknesses defensive. Too, with Liles, Phaneuf and Franson all boasting legitimate power play credentials, it is difficult to believe that Gardiner would get the opportunity to showcase his offensive talents on the man advantage immediately out of the gate.

Additionally, it is worthwhile to consider the difficulty Gardiner might have staying in the top-six rotation. Gunnarsson showed his value last season as the year wore on, eclipsing 20:00 per game in every contest from mid-February on. This has been characterized in some places as Gunnarsson being a slow starter, but it could just as easily be read to mean that the 24-year old was finally coming into his own as an NHL blue-liner. The latter interpretation is supported by some strong analytical work by Steve Burtch of Pension Plan Puppets, who found that Gunnarsson compared favourably to a group of players that became NHL stalwarts at about the same age. If Gardiner were to struggle – as virtually every rookie defenseman in NHL history has at some point during his first season – it is all too easy to see him being demoted to the press box, particularly given that he would have two rivals to contend with just to stay in the line-up on any given night.

Weighed against these factors are the benefits of AHL play. With the Marlies, Gardiner could walk into the role of top-pairing defenseman, seeing regular minutes against the best that a very tough league has to offer at even-strength, running the power play, and learning to kill penalties at the professional level. Long-term, the better development choice seems obvious.

Given where Gardiner is in his career and the number of options on the Leafs’ blue-line, the logical course of action is precisely that suggested on this site yesterday – “to send him to the Marlies and use Komisarek as the team’s seventh d-man in the press box.”