1. Let’s have a chat
No one is going to mistake the Toronto Maple Leafs of the last few years for any sort of defensive stalwart. They have some nice players on that blue line, but for the most part, there are serious problems when your best defenseman is arguably Morgan Rielly.
That’s not a knock on Rielly, who’s clearly good and still growing into his game, but it is a reality. He shouldn’t be your No. 1 defenseman if you’re an NHL team, full stop.
But defense is the real Name of the Game in the NHL, and that’s reflected in the declining goal numbers seen over the last several years. You need guys who can lock down your own zone and also get the puck out of it and across the opposite blue line.
And to that extent, one Maple Leaf defenseman has done that more often and better than anyone else on the roster over the last few years. He is, however, criminally misused both by his old borderline-incompetent coach, and his new one, because there are many fundamental misunderstandings about his game and, unlikely Rielly (who is given plenty of rope because of his age) seems to be heavily criticized every time he or the team has a bad night.
Which, you needn’t be reminded, happens a lot for Toronto.
2. Poor Jake
Young Jake Gardiner isn’t all that young anymore. He turned 25 over the summer and has been in the league since 2011. At some point, you have to say a guy with almost 280 games played is just a guy on your roster.
And this past week, there has been plenty of talk that Gardiner is a more “consistent” player than he once was. I think that’s a little bit silly because we all know the shortcomings of a Randy Carlyle system, especially given how he tended to handle young, mobile, puck-moving, offensive defensemen (poorly). Doesn’t mean he couldn’t have off nights, but again, lots of guys do when your coach is that bad.
Under Babcock, wow look at that, he magically seems to be much, much better and more reliable. This is probably true of many defensemen on the team, but in particular, you’d have to say Gardiner — a player to whose style and skills a Babcock-devised system seems particularly well-suited — has taken a big step forward.
He is currently carrying a high-quality chances-for share of more than 60, partly due to how he’s used but also because he’s really good and the Leafs are better too. That plus-10.46 relative HQCF is only the best of his career, beating his plus-9.5 rating from last season, and plus-7.9 in 2012-13 (though he only played 18 games that season). And the corsi-relative numbers are always high, too, at least plus-5.2 if you exclude his rookie season. Relative shots-for is always better. Relative goals-for is more of a mixed bag, as you might expect, but this season it’s a whopping plus-9.9.
3. So what’s the problem?
The central thesis of the TSN piece linked above is that the Leafs still shouldn’t really know what they have in Gardiner. That is, of course, silly.
The team is now smart enough to know exactly what they have: A guy that, given a little bit of shelter from the elements (tough competition, lots of own-zone starts), can really push around his opponents on a regular basis. And if that only makes him a strong middle pairing defenseman — which is what he clearly is at the very least right now — then that’s something that clearly carries a lot of value in and of itself.
If it also carries the added value of making Dion Phaneuf look good in a Leafs uniform for once, then you probably take that as a very nice little bonus.
Now, you might be able to argue that the talent Gardiner exhibits — the ability to annihilate middling competition on a nightly basis — may indicate a higher ceiling than middle-pairing defenseman, and if that’s the Leafs’ concern then it’s an interesting one. “Pair him with Rielly for big minutes against top competition and see what you have” kind of thing. We know Rielly can handle it okay, but it’s not often Gardiner pulls that kind of duty.
4. On the other hand
While he doesn’t often get those assignments, he might also not be too accustomed to playing with players of that quality.
Therefore, that’s just about the only thing you can say is unknown about Gardiner. The ability to pummel second-liners is a nice one to have, and it’s going to make you appear as though you’ve improved in your fifth year in the league. But really, you’d have to say it’s a mix of latent talent being actually recognized for once, and being put to good use for once as well.
As with a guy who shoots 16 percent for a month and therefore feels “dialed in” or whatever, Gardiner now has the validation that comes with a strong process which backs up his natural talents. He’s a puck-carrier, and has the sense to make a good outlet pass far more often than not. It’s something the Leafs literally never asked him to do under Carlyle, but on which the Babcock system thrives.
So yes, of course he’s going to appear to have serious sustained success for the first time in his career. He’s being asked to do what he’s good at, instead of what he isn’t good at. Not difficult to see the strings on this puppet show.
5. Going forward
You would have to say, however, that because of this aptitude under Babcock, that stuff about pairing him with Rielly and seeing where it gets you is something the team should probably employ at some point. I wrote last week about the importance of getting Matt Hunwick the hell off the top pairing because he’s an anchor around Rielly’s throat, but this is another good reason why.
Yes, it’s something Carlyle and even Peter Horachek tried last year, but again, the systems weren’t there to play into either players’ strengths. And certainly, they weren’t playing together against top competition.
Obviously, the inclination to put them together once again might be dampened by the fact that they’re both left-shot defensemen, but Rielly has plenty of experience on the right side and it therefore doesn’t seem like a major issue to me if they’re just your two best options. Which they are.
That will test the Gardiner consistency theory, of course, because we don’t have a lot of data on how all this goes. But hey, it’s a season in which you’re going to stink most of the time anyway. Why not give it a shot?