Jake Gardiner to make season debut tonight

We knew yesterday that Jake Gardiner, now certified concussion-free, was going to be tagging along with the Toronto Maple Leafs to Pittsburgh, but unclear as to whether or not he’d play.

Gardiner, who had been skating on his own for about a week, took some contact in Tuesday’s practice and said he felt fine. The coaching staff will not make a decision on a decision whether he will play until after consulting with doctors later in the day.

Once he gets the green light, head coach Randy Carlyle said he would not hesitate to throw Gardiner in the lineup.

Evidently, the green light was given earlier this afternoon. Sportsnet’s David Alter was the first to report that the young defenceman will, in fact, make his season debut tonight against the Penguins in place of Korbinian Holzer, who will be sent down to the Toronto Marlies.

The decision to get Gardiner in the lineup was made after Randy Carlyle met with the media this morning at Consol Energy Centre, so it’s unclear just where the Leafs are going to slot in the lineup. Last season, Gardiner saw plenty of time with John-Michael Liles while Dion Phaneuf held top-pairing duties with Carl Gunnarsson. So far this season, Phaneuf has been playing with Gardiner’s AHL partner Mike Kostka.

So one of those pairings is going to be split up.

I’d wager that Phaneuf is used with three different partners tonight, with a visible split between powerplay, penalty kill and even strength. I’d also wager that Phaneuf sees at least 30 minutes of ice-time tonight, being used in every conceivable situation.

Phaneuf and Kostka play about 18 minutes a game at even strength each. Kostka, though, doesn’t kill penalties. That’s a place where Randy Carlyle likes to put Carl Gunnarsson (each about four minutes a night, though Phaneuf gets an extra shift) and they play together on the powerplay.

Liles has been at the back of the second PK unit. He did so with Mike Komisarek in the first game of the season, but Komisarek was so bad against Montreal that I think it’s a while before he draws back into the lineup. Gardiner was third in Leafs PK time, playing primarily with Luke Schenn. Like Komisarek, he’s not an option tonight either.

That second PK pairing is tough to pick out, since Gardiner doesn’t kill penalties and didn’t play any significant minutes with Liles last season. It’s conceivable that Carlyle eases Gardiner into the lineup, doesn’t send him out for the PK, and instead puts Liles again with Mark Fraser, although he’s been fairly restrictive of him. Fraser played just 8:49 against Buffalo, and :38 seconds at even strength. Holzer, who killed penalties, with Liles, is being sent down.

There’s this, before the decision was made on Gardiner:

I didn’t expect Cody Franson to slot into the lineup, but the only way this makes sense is if Gardiner slots into Fraser’s spot and uses him at evens alongside Gunnarsson, on the powerplay with Kostka and withold his minutes on the penalty kill. Liles was Franson’s most common defensive partner last season at even strength, it’s that second PK spot where there doesn’t seem to be a guy to jump in.

For all I know it could be Gardiner and Liles, two right-sided guys, or Carlyle will entrust Franson with more minutes. He had 3:16 of shorthanded ice-time last season and makes more sense as a stop-gap guy than moving either Gardiner or Liles to the right side of the ice.

Where this could get real messy is if Dion Phaneuf or Carl Gunnarsson take a penalty.

Icetime info courtesy Behind The Net and NHL.com