It’s very rare for those in the hockey know around Toronto to agree on something. But, at this second, there is one subject that is an exception to this rule, and it’s Jake Gardiner. With nobody sure if the Leafs will continue their success and approximately fourteen thousand defenceman up on the current roster, everybody still has a critical need to see their promising young crown jewel back in the lineup. The question is simple; when does he come back up from the Toronto Marlies?
The answer? That I can’t give you – I’m not Dave Nonis or anybody else involved with the decision. But I will say this. If it were me, it’s not for a little while yet. This isn’t to say that Gardiner has "fallen off", or to scare you in any way, but at this second, he’s not ready.
The first thing that one has to consider is why exactly he was sent back down in the first place. Gardiner suffered a concussion on December 8th, missed a lot of time, and showed up to the Leafs not looking like himself. As we all know, concussions are something you under no circumstances want to mess with, and take time to truly recover from, even if you’re healthy enough to play. Some of it is physical side effect, some of it is mental. The only appropriate time to return Gardiner to the NHL is when he plays exactly like himself.
The first way to do figure this out doesn’t require watching him play (we’ll get to that), but rather looking at his more obvious stats. In his pre-concussion stint with the team, Gardiner played 22 games. In those games, he put up a rather impressive 9 goals, 8 assists, 76 shots, and was a -1. Of those 22 games, he earned those 17 points in 11 of them, playing five multi point games. After this, he missed the next 17 games, partially due to injury, and partially due to the Leafs giving him a try up top first. He’s played 10 games since coming back, and in them, has no goals, 5 assists, 21 shots, and is a -4. The assists were acquired in 4 games, with one multi-point performance.
Take those numbers, and stretch them to a full 76 game AHL season.
Now, the latter stat line is admittedly a small sample size, being based on less than half of the games played. As well, I wouldn’t look into the plus minus gap at all. It’s not even a matter of whether you think plus minus is relevant to a player or not, or a reflection of team play. The Marlies, as I’ve stated frequently the past few weeks, are performing much worse after the departure of practically every core player other than Gardiner. If you went down the list, I’m sure the entire team’s plus minus stats would look like this.
But all the same, he’s playing poorly in that span. Goals have become non-existent, and he’s shooting much less frequently than before. The output from his play looks like somebody who will be a stretch to get regular NHL time again. That obviously isn’t the case here, but if that’s what you’re getting at this second, what’s the incentive in calling him up?
Now, to his actual play. Watching all of the home games and most of the road games he’s played since returning, it’s been a rare occurrence to be "wowed" by him, or even really notice him. There will be a nice pass here and there, an occasional bad defensive play, but really, he’s blended in. Which is fantastic if you’re a #4/5 defenceman with a defensive lenience, but not for someone who has spent his entire pro career catching the organization and its fans by pleasant surprise with his ability to add to the attack.
Thinking I was just missing something, I spent all of Sunday’s game against Houston watching Gardiner. Paying just slight attention to everybody else. What I noticed was as follows:
- Dallas Eakins is giving him all the opportunity in the world to succeed. By that, I mean he played in over half the shifts, on the ice for 39 of 76 defensive shifts.
- To add to that, he was taking longer shifts, often going over a minute, twice playing full 2 minute powerplays, and once playing a full penalty kill with an additional 45 seconds afterward. If I had to guess, he played close to 35-36 minutes. To keep that number somewhat sane, the game went to a shootout.
- He took 4 shots this game, the most of any game in this stint. That said, three of them were very lower percentage shots where there was little other option, just one being a reasonable scoring chance. In that chance, he pinched and met Matt Hackett at to his right, and fired an easily stopped slapshot.
- That said, he still wasn’t shooting enough. In a late first period powerplay (a 5 on 3, no less), he made six consecutive passes before Tim Connolly finally gave up and took the shot. By the end of the powerplay, he remained without a shot while making eleven total passes. This was a common occurrence over the course of the game.
- He seemed much more cautious when it came to playing the puck behind the net, approaching the puck at a lower speed, sometimes taking swooping motions to get to it safer, but slower. You have to imagine he’s worried about getting rocked again, because I doubt it was in the plan to let a few of these plays become turnovers.
- The third period saw his biggest mistake and his best play. The mistake was an attempt to drop a caught puck to himself, but rather finding Chad Rau’s stick, which lead to a goal. He made up for this with a feed to Jesse Blacker five minutes later, holding off two Aeros players. Blacker’s shot was rebounded by Tim Connolly, tying the game and netting Jake an assist.
- With all of this said, there were positives too. For one, Gardiner’s positioning was spectacular, almost always being in the correct position. Granted, you want a guy like him to take offensive risks, but it’s better than seeing him making defensive errors left and right.
- However, I could’ve done without the giveaway thirty seconds into overtime. His recovery made up for it, though.
When all was said and done, Eakins called this game Gardiner’s best since coming down. I don’t disagree. He was handed a bunch of minutes, didn’t look particularly gassed, stayed in position and stayed in position for the bulk of it. That’s all good stuff to see.
But it’s also not Jake Gardiner. Jake Gardiner is a defenceman who you can be pretty reliable on the back end, but makes things happen offensively. He’s someone who skates in a carefree, effortless way, to make plays happen. Instead, we’re seeing somebody who seems timid, reserved, and cautious. That’s a concern.
Will he break out of this play soon? Sure. He’s been back on the ice for fewer games than he’s missed, playing on a team that has fewer offensive outlets than when he left, and, fingers crossed, will be less concerned heading into risky areas soon. Picking up a goal or two will likely get him shooting again. It’s twisted, yet fitting, that a player that left with a head injury needs to make a mental leap to get back into the game. But that’s the necessity, and until it happens, the demands for his return to the Leafs are fueled entirely on brand name.
Gardiner and the Marlies face the Milwaukee Admirals tomorrow afternoon at 3PM. Photo courtesy TSGPhoto