Jake Gardiner is Really Good, But Still Learning

Jake gardiner
TORONTON, ON - JANUARY 6: Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Vancouver Canucks during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on January 6, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canucks 3-2 in an overtime shoot-out. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Jake Gardiner has been one of the most interesting players the Toronto Maple Leafs have had in years. Maybe not if you think consistent magic, see Auston Matthews, or crazy beard pulls, see Nazem Kadri, are interesting. But if you want to watch a player that can leave you drooling for more and hiding your face in the same game, Gardiner is your man.

Jake Gardiner is Really Good, But Still Learning

The Background

Gardiner was sixth in Calder voting in his rookie year. He was supposed to be the team’s eventual number one defender. Gardiner was supposed to impress the hockey world with his incredible ability night in and night out. He was supposed to be a guy the Leafs swindled from the Anaheim Ducks. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

Over his 6+ seasons with the Maple Leafs, Gardiner has flashed some amazing skills, put up good numbers, and good advanced stats. Yet he has never lived up to the hype that surrounds him. In a single game, or play, and maybe a playoffs series in the near future, he has teased us with his skill. He has a good wrist shot and slap shot. He can rush the puck. Gardiner can quarterback a powerplay. He even had a breakout season, with 43 points in 2016-17. However, he can also make such dumbfounding mistakes that one cannot help but question all his positives.

Babcock’s take

Mike Babcock plays Gardiner a lot. He’s second in average ice time this season behind only Nikita Zaitsev. It’s hard to argue against that for a few reasons. One obvious reason is who else is he going to play those minutes? Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey play just about as much as Gardiner. After that, the Leafs don’t have players that should play ahead of him.

Another reason he plays so much is that he’s still an asset to the team despite the mistakes he makes. His Corsi For and his Relative Corsi For have been positive for the past three seasons. The frustrating aspect is that both have dropped the past three consecutive seasons. His CF% in 2015-16 was 54.4. That dropped to 52.6 last year. It is 50.1 this year.

The biggest reason Babcock gives him top pairing minutes is that Gardiner still has that potential. He’s 27 years old. For a defenseman, he is still green. He still has room to grow. And he needs the experience to get there. No one learns from doing well. We learn from making mistakes.

“We’re still a young team that is learning how to win.” –Mike Babcock January 4th, 2018

That quote wasn’t from last year. It was from a couple days ago. The Leafs are still a young team, Gardiner is still a young player among many. Although he doesn’t seem like a young player. The Leafs average age is 27.6, and that’s with a few players (Patrick Marleau 38, Dominic Moore 37, Hainsey 36, and back up goaltender Curtis McElhinney 34) long in the tooth and dragging that age up. Gardiner seems older because he’s been with the Leafs almost seven years, and the Leafs are blessed with a plethora of young, skilled players. Relative to many players on the team, Gardiner is old. But for a defenseman, he’s really not old at all.

Just how young?

Gardiner is the second oldest Leaf defenseman after Roman Polak and Hainsey. And most people believe Polak shouldn’t be anywhere close to the Leafs top six. Babcock, of course, is not most people.

On the San Jose Sharks, Gardiner would be the fifth oldest defenseman, with the sixth just a few months younger. It’s said that defensemen ripen later than forwards. Players like Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, and P.K. Subban were great by 23, but other than a one great season at age 22, Brent Burns didn’t get Norris consideration till he was 29.  And no one is expecting Gardiner to match any of those players, but being a tier below them is realistic. Gardiner is still on pace to be a solid defenseman, despite taking a step backward in the first half of this season.

What’s next?

One of the differences between this year’s Maple Leafs and the previous 10 iterations is that there are expectations to be competitive, to be good. Not just from a rabid fan base. The Maple Leafs are on a road towards true and consistent Stanley Cup contention. That’s not something many fans have lived through. It’s no longer okay for players like Gardiner to look good sometimes but to also make costly mistakes. It’s time to stop making those mistake, learn to win, then actually win. But the team is still on that road. They haven’t won anything.

Expectations and reality are not the same. The Leafs overachieved last year. That’s not to say they shouldn’t improve upon last year, but the road to contention has sped up. That’s driven the expectations up and lowered many fans’ patience with the players.

What if?

Imagine for a moment that the Leafs had not traded for Frederik Andersen and sent Mitch Marner back to Junior last year. That they had opted for another season of taking bad contracts for draft picks and icing a non-playoff team. That’s something they could have easily done. Babcock promised pain. I haven’t seen much pain. The pain Leaf fans have endured since they hired Babcock is akin to a small tattoo on a patch of skin slathered with numbing cream. Yeah, it hurts, I guess.

If the Leafs had missed the playoffs last year. The play of Gardiner this year might still be considered part of his learning curve. People might say he’s getting those kinks out his game before the true contention years begin. Instead, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, the team is in a win-now mode this year. Players’ mistakes, gaffs, and inefficiencies are now heavily scrutinized.

Of the players expected to stick around on the Leafs long-term, Gardiner is the poster boy for ‘not good enough’ (also Mike Babcock Dec 20, 2017 after a 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets). The reality is that he is good enough. He’s not the number one defenseman the team needs to jump to that next level in the NHL. He’s a second pairing defenseman on a Stanley Cup contending team, or he will be, maybe, we’ll see.

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  1. Jake Gardiner is a defensive liability whose inability to play effective defense in the Leafs end of the rink far outweighs any offensive contribution he may bring. He’s always been afraid of contact, feeble stick checker giveaway machine who folds and coughs up the puck under pressure especially when it looks like he might get hit. His low-lite reel is a litany of game costing blowouts and laughable massive brainfarts. He’s visibly lazy, blows his coverage all the time and has no inclination, or ability, to recover after making one of his many massive mistakes that typically lead to a goal against the Leafs. This BS about all his upside is a worn out skipping record ever since the Ducks dumped on Toronto along with Lupul. He gets paid to be a D-man but he’s terrible in the Leafs own zone. Recall his idiocy against LA 2 months back.

    • The stats don’t bear out your hypothesis “whose inability to play effective defense in the Leafs end of the rink far outweighs any offensive contribution he may bring.” Not when he’s been amongst the teams best possession defencemen.

      • Ah … another “stats” guy. My eyes and yours don’t bear out your allegation. Where and when do you allege Gardenia possesses the puck, in the offensive zone on the PP perhaps? Given the general weakness of the Leafs defense it’s not saying a lot, and possession doesn’t equal results, especially in clown show Jake’s case. What are his giveaway cough up stats? What’s his career +/- now -24 or thereabouts?

        You studiously avoided countering any of the many other salient observations of Jake Gardiner’s abysmal defensive zone failings. Have at ‘er.

          • I’ve been a Leafs fan since the 70’s, what’s my bias one wonders? And yet again you’ve chosen to avoid countering any of Jakerina’s many defensive zone failings. Other than the occasional breakout pass that connects please feel free to elaborate on what Gardenia does well in the Leafs defensive zone.

            Other than a singular arbitrary stat you offer as some sort of nebulous proof of Jake’s ability to do something, your responses are content free, kinda like Gardenia as a D-man. No comment on Jake’s giveaway stats or -24? Regurgitating a cherry picked stat amounts to .. well .. nothing.

          • 1) Quoting plus/minus, and quoting it over his career, most of which was spent on bad teams.. shows that you don’t understand stats.

            2) I’m done responding to you if you keep being a misogynist with your feminine nicknames for players you don’t like. That is not acceptable.

          • Focusing on a singular stat all the time shows that you don’t have much. You keep gingerly stepping over the Jake’s turds, conveniently ignoring things like his abysmal giveaway numbers. You continue to refuse to address his many obvious defensive failings with really weak responses and still no content. I’ll ask you again to refute the massive holes I’ve pointed out in Jake’s defensive ‘game.’ You can’t or won’t.

            BTW Gardenia is a flower, will you feign indignation for the flora now? Your defense of Gardenia is about as effective as Jake’s defensive game …

  2. Dump the non contact, weak stick checking, blown coverage, giveaway machine AREA 51 Jake on any team who will take him ASAP and acquire Erik Gudbranson from VC ASAP. Reilly can quarterback the PP and Gudbranson will add much needed toughness and grit to the Leafs backend. Dermot outshone Jake last night, they don’t need the massive defensive liability that is Gardiner anymore.

    Gardenia is NOT getting better after roughly 7 years, he can’t even do the basics as a D-man in the Leafs zone at 27 going on 28 …. it ain’t gonna happen. He’s a game losing liability, why do you suppose Freddy avoids giving the puck to clown show Jake if there’s any kind of other option? When was the last time Jake went into a corner let alone came out in possession of the puck, he plays afraid in the defensive zone.

    • Mistakes made by defensemen are obvious and often immediately costly to the team. The frustrating part of Gardiner’s game is that he still makes those mistakes after almost 7 years of play, there’s no doubt about that. Defensemen can also be excessively faulted unduly, that’s why teams incorporate those debated advanced stats. The Leafs are embracing those advanced stats as is the trend in the NHL. We’ll see how it pans out for them.

      • After 7 years of this and Gardenia’s inability to master the basics of defensive zone play we know it’s in the bone Joe. I’ve had people at Leafs practice tell me that earlier this year the coaches had Jake stay after class to spend 1/2 an hour practicing clearing the puck off the boards or glass! This is rudimentary stuff that this clown should have mastered years ago. He has some ability at moving the puck on offense but that falls far short of his laughable failings as a completely incompetent D-man, he costs the Leafs far more than he offers. But Babcock seems to suspend his mantra of not being able to out score your mistakes when it comes to Jake’s abysmal defensive zone play.

  3. Part of the frustration for “stats” guys is that, to them, Jake ‘the really good paper D-man’ Gardiner SHOULD be better than he is. They mistakenly assume some of Gardenia’s abysmal defensive zone play is involuntary, all that he just needs to learn blather. Watch AREA 51 closely for a game or 2, if you can stand it, and you’ll see Jake many times coughs up the puck, won’t go into corners, blows his coverage, gets easily beat, offers only flaccid stick check, ices the puck VOLUNTARILY because he’s afraid of contact! It won’t get corrected because it CAN’T be corrected! That, and you can’t fix stupid.

  4. Any thoughts on the Leafs not claiming Fransen? Seems like he could eat some minutes and save the younger defensemen some ice time. At least until playoff time.

    • I was looking at Cody Franson as a guy the Leafs could trade for before he was put on waivers. They still could, but claiming him is tough. The Leafs are at the max 50 contracts and would have to give someone up to add another contract. It still may happen, but Travis Dermott may have something to say about what the Leafs do next on defense. One thing is for sure, Franson’s Corsi stats are surprisingly good.