When we think of an elite defenseman we look towards those who are effective on both ends of the rink. The best defensemen in the world are capable of disrupting the opposition’s attack and immediately turn that play into a scoring chance for his team. These types of plays don’t occur regularly, but superior defenders are capable of making something out of nothing. That is why the job of a defenseman is crucial for his team.
Despite being relied upon by its goaltender to limit quality shots against, they also need to be able to move the puck up ice to its forwards in order to create any opportunity to score. The Toronto Maple Leafs have many skilled players in their lineup, but what’s not to be forgotten is the importance of their back end. Here’s why Jake Gardiner is an elite defenseman who leads Toronto’s blueline by example.
Gardiner’s Journey as a Maple Leaf
The Maple Leafs acquired Gardiner along with Joffrey Lupul and a conditional fourth-round pick from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Francois Beauchemin. From there on out Gardiner would remain a valuable asset to the Maple Leafs, and it’s starting to show now. The Minnesota native didn’t always have it easy making his way to the NHL, especially when battling with former Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle.
But that all changed when Mike Babcock was hired as Toronto’s head coach about a year and a half ago. Gardiner now finds himself as a 26-year old veteran defenseman amongst the rookies in Toronto, where every game it’s William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and sometimes Morgan Rielly receiving the spotlight from the media.
While the rookies have made Leafs hockey much more exciting to watch, Gardiner’s name doesn’t come up enough when looking for reasons on why this team is better than last years. In fact, Gardiner’s impact when he’s on the ice puts him up with the league’s best defensemen.
Stat Sheet Star
Through 30 games so far, Gardiner’s five-on-five 53.89 CF% puts him in the top 20 out of defensemen with at least 400 minutes played. Those possession numbers currently puts him in between Kris Letang and Roman Josi, two elite puck moving defensemen.
His possession numbers are also very impressive in relation to his teammates. When Gardiner is on the ice the Maple Leafs allow about five less shot attempts every 60 minutes compared to when he’s on the bench. This defensive impact is comparable to what Marc-Edouard Vlasic brings to the San Jose Sharks on the defensive end. Meanwhile, on the other side of the rink, Toronto generates nearly six more shot attempts every hour with Gardiner playing. This type of offensive impact is comparable to Mark Giordano’s effect on the Calgary Flames.
On paper, Gardiner’s impact on his team is among the best in the league. However, he doesn’t receive the praise and attention that is missing. Roman Polak will receive more coverage from broadcasters for his ability to lay the body, and Rielly will shock the crowd with his blazing speed down the ice. Gardiner on the other hand will make the little plays that go unnoticed or are undervalued.
Passing the Eye Test
A lot of what Gardiner does for his team is all thanks to his skating ability. He’s not the fastest skater on the ice, but he’s without a doubt an effortless, smooth skater. In the play above Gardiner finds himself on the wrong end of a two-on-one with Nathan MacKinnon as the puck carrier. Gardiner sees Nylander coming down the wing to take away the pass, so he can focus on Mackinnon. Mackinnon, who has tremendous speed, attempts to skate past the Leafs blueliner, but Gardiner forces him outside the slot. This interrupts the flow of the odd-man rush which eliminates any potential scoring chances. At the end of the sequence, Toronto avoids a scoring opportunity against and they get possession of the puck.
The next play shows Gardiner retrieving the puck in his own end, leading to a smooth transition into Colorado’s zone. Again, going back to Gardiner’s skating, he’s able to avoid being chased down by Mikko Rantanen and bringing him out of position. This creates open space in the neutral zone for him to work with, which results in a pass to James van Riemsdyk to gain entry of offensive zone. Without Gardiner’s puck handling abilities and easy skating, the Maple Leafs would have to find another way to get the offense rolling.
Lastly, we see Gardiner deny an Avalanche zone entry and immediately make something out of nothing. What looks like a possible rush going the other way turns into a Toronto possession thanks to Gardiner’s ability to beat Carl Soderberg to the puck and pass it right off to van Riemsdyk. Gardiner’s awareness allows him to see who’s up ice for his team while following the opposition and the puck. The result is a failed zone entry attempt from Colorado turned into a chance going the other way for Toronto.
These are just some examples of how Gardiner limits opportunities against while creating plays for his own team. In real time his significance will go unnoticed, but there’s great value to his style of play.
Jake Gardiner is an Elite Defenseman
Gardiner’s impact to his team as a puck moving defenseman creates many more opportunities for Toronto. He has made a significant contribution towards the Maple Leafs historic offense this year. Aside from his respectable offensive production, his awareness, combined with his athletic skill, is the reason the Maple Leafs are a better team while he’s on the ice. With smart decisions coming from Gardiner on the back end, Toronto’s transition game will continue to improve in the long run. This makes them one of the more opportunistic teams in the league.