One of the big stories out of the Maple Leafs’ training camp this season was the emergence of Jake Gardiner. It forced a bit of a roster jam, as veterans like Mike Komisarek and Cody Franson both spent time in the press box at time throughout the year.
Over the last four games, however, it was Gardiner who watched the game as a healthy scratch. Today, the Leafs relieved the pressure, assigning Gardiner to the Toronto Marlies.
Gardiner’s loss comes at the gain of another young defenseman: Keith Aulie, who was praised to high heaven for his work in 2010-11 but found himself on the outside looking in when training camp rolled around. Now, the roles have shifted: it is Aulie getting regular work, and Gardiner being dispatched to the minor leagues.
It’s an interesting shift, because the two players are very different.
Gardiner has spent most of the year getting the most common rookie minutes: lots of offensive zone starts (no Leafs defenseman starts a higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone than Gardiner, at 56.1%). In contrast, Aulie is sitting at around the 50% mark over his short time with the Leafs this season, and in 2010-11 that number was actually 43.9% – in other words, there’s no question of whether coach Ron Wilson trusts Aulie in his own end of the ice.
It has also given Wilson a chance to resurrect a tandem that he liked last season, which saw team captain Dion Phaneuf paired with Aulie. That pairing automatically means that Aulie is tossed out against top opponents – for instance, in Saturday’s game against the Rangers, the most common opposition for Phaneuf and Aulie was the Brad Richards line. In the last game that Aulie and Gardiner both dressed (January 5 against Winnipeg), Aulie’s most common opponent was Evander Kane; Gardiner’s was Tanner Glass.
In the end, it isn’t a surprise that Wilson chose to go with the guy he trusted to do the heavy lifting, rather than the guy whose minutes he was carefully managing.