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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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