Puck rushing defensemen create a noticeable hole once removed from the lineup.
That’s what Jake Gardiner is, a skilled puck rushing blueliner. The ability to take the line and set up in the offensive zone has spawned studies into the importance of zone entries. The early evidence is that there’s a big advantage to having a defenseman with the ability to gain the line.
This year, thanks to the most recent NHL lockout, Gardiner will begin the year with the Marlies. What are some reasonable expectations for him and how do we measure defensemen scoring success at the AHL level? From last season, Norfolk’s Mark Barberio led the AHL with 61 points, with 62.3% coming on the power play. Bobby Sanguinetti led the top-10 with 0.83 points-per-game.
Can Gardiner appear among these lists should there be a full season in the AHL should the lockout last the entire season? Below is the 2011-12 listing.
As the Toronto Marlies proceeded to their first Calder Cup Finals last season, the former Ducks 1st rounder scored a respectable 11 points in 17 games, finishing second overall among AHL defensemen in the playoffs, one point behind new Marlies teammate Mike Kostka (18-6-6-12).
The Marlies ranked 27th on the power play last season clicking at a 14.6% clip, slipping in the playoffs to 11.9%.
Gardiner registered six power play assists representing points on 60% of the Marlies 10 playoff power play markers. Having Gardiner’s ability to shoot and Kostka’s decent shot should add another dimension along the blueline.
Kostka was tied for the overall goals lead among defensemen with 16 (Troy Milam) in 2010-11 while finishing third in overall points, 57.4% of which he gained on the power play.
So what am I focusing on watching this season from viewings?
Gardiner exhibits signature mobility from the blueline while also flashing the ability to make long stretch passes. But the defensive side of his game remains somewhat dubious, something that the Marlies coaching staff will likely try to address this season. If Gardiner is focussed on making defensive gains, and is playing difficult minutes, his overall production could logically slip as a result. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that Gardiner will be in the top-10 among defensemen scoring in the AHL.
There is a distinct difference in speed and pace between the NHL and the AHL, and there’s also a difference in structure. During the playoffs I jotted down a few instances where Gardiner struggled and made some questionable decisions even while he was showing flashes of his dynamic puck-rushing game.
Gardiner could also apply himself more in the defensive zone during coverage, where occasionally looks too casual in coverage. He could also slowly integrate using his body more, and upgrade his sense of urgency and his compete level.
As much as Gardiner’s defensive game needs an overall upgrade, it’s his puck skills and skating ability that will make him a successful NHL blueliner. Building on that rushing ability will enhance his ability as a power play QB, something he could refine in the AHL.
Adding Kostka and Keith Aucoin up front adds more dimensions to the power play, where Gardiner is likely to score a majority of his points.