There probably isn’t a defenseman on the Leafs more polarizing than Jake Gardiner. The stats people will argue about how 99% of the time, he is an elite defenseman. The “watch the games” crowd will argue the other 1% of the time, where he makes massive gaffs that make him look like he should be in the ECHL.
That was, until this season. While many could argue that Morgan Rielly was the Leafs best defenseman going into the season, Gardiner had a season that put him on a different level than Rielly, even if it’s only for the next year or two. It could even be made that he starts getting more conversation among the entire league, but that might be stretching it for the time being.
The best part about Jake Gardiner is that there isn’t a whole lot that he’s not good at anymore. You could’ve argued for a while that he could produce a little more, but even this year he did that, as he led Leafs defensemen with 43 points, significantly higher than his previous career high of 31. His 43 points ranked 17th in the league this season, one fewer than reigning Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty, and one more than Shea Weber, the Norris Trophy candidate for the first chunk of this season.
Defensively, Gardiner continues to be what he’s been for quite some time. His 51.9% 5v5 CF% was the sixth best on the Leafs, and second among defensemen after Connor Carrick, who usually played with Gardiner. Meanwhile, his shot suppression abilities continue to be strong, as he had a 56.91 CA60, which was seventh on the team. League-wide, it’s not the best, as it ranks 135th, but considering how the Leafs played at a high pace all season, Gardiner was pretty good relative to his team.
And of course, there’s his magnificent skating ability, which rivals pretty much anyone on the team. He might not have the top end speed of Rielly, but his agility gives him an edge against his opponents, allowing him to make them look silly on occasion.
There isn’t a whole lot to really harp on Gardiner for this season. As I said before, he could’ve improved his offensive numbers, but he did exactly that this season, so it’s hard to give him any criticism. Since Babcock has taken over, Gardiner’s been allowed to play his game and has shown Babs that it wasn’t a mistake.
Ok, except for those couple of times every game where he ages Babcock a year or two. You know what I mean, those moments that make you scream at your TV “What the @#%$ Jake?”, not even so much because you think he sucks, but more because you know that he’s better than that. Like most defensemen who rely on a strong first pass to transition to the offensive zone, Gardiner occasionally makes BAD passes. However, as he’s grown, it’s starting to leave his game, especially in the playoffs where it was almost non-existent.
Jake Gardiner took another step forward this season and is beginning to look like one of the better defensemen in the league. He still has a few flaws, as does every player, but all-around he is an excellent play-driving blueliner and the best one on a team full of them.
Ideally, Gardiner will probably have a season similar to this one. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say he puts up 40-something points again while playing his usually strong defensive game. If I were Babcock, I would start to rely on him more for the tough minutes defensively instead of Rielly, but that might see him take a hit in his offensive numbers.
Looking forward, Gardiner will probably be the Leafs best defenseman for at least the duration of his current contract. Whether he stays with the team after it, it’s hard to say, but for the time being, he’s worth every penny. The best part about Gardiner is that he always seems to step it up a notch in the postseason, which is great for a team poised to make many playoff runs in the coming years.