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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Jake Gardiner: A coming out party of awareness more than improvement

Jake Gardiner has long been the most polarizing defenceman employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but this year he seemed to catch a lot less flack than in previous years.

During the course of the season, I assumed this was just a by-product of the team being competitive for the first time in a while until I noticed his boxcar statistics. Gardiner was tops among Leafs defencemen in goals (9), assists (34), points (43) and plus-minus (+24) while playing in all 82 regular season games. The thing that caught my eye was that pesky plus-minus, which he led the team in by a pretty significant margin (second on the team was Roman Polak at +10.) I’m not about to go on a tangent about how useless of a statistic plus-minus is, Garret Hohl lays it out pretty well here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that +24 is a big reason behind the many Gardiner critics quieting down this season.

There were some people praising Mike Babcock for the improvement of Gardiner’s defensive game, even though he’s always been good defensively, but I don’t think the process was much different for Gardiner in 2016/17 than in other seasons. The results improved, which obviously has a huge impact on perception, but he’s always been this good or at least close to this good. Gardiner has always been known as somewhat of a “corsi darling,” and for good reason. Over the three years prior to the 2016/17 season, Gardiner led the Leafs in relative shot attempt differential (rel.CF%) at 5v5 when adjusted for score, zone and venue effects. During those three seasons the Leafs shot share increased 4.42% when Gardiner was on the ice. The second best Leaf defenceman in that department over that period of time was Cody Franson, who posted a +2.43 rel.CF%. This year Gardiner’s relative shot differential actually decreased from previous years, but he was still a +1.25 rel.CF%, as opposed to, for example, last year’s +2.84%.

It looks like all of the good luck Gardiner didn’t get in that terrible, awful, no good 2014/15 season showed up two years later! During that disastrous season, Gardiner suffered a 13.97%(!!) drop from rel.xGF% to his actual rel.GF%. This resulted in his -23 rating, while this season he received some significant puck luck with a +11.56 boost from rel.xGF% to rel.GF%, resulting in a +24 rating. Gardiner not only had an unsustainably high PDO, but he had the biggest xPDO to PDO differential he’s had over the last four years, getting a 2.2% bump. This might not seem like it’s a huge differential, but over almost 1420 minutes of 5v5 ice time, it makes a big difference.

It’s also interesting to note that Gardiner’s relative shot share has taken a bit of a dip since Mike Babcock’s arrival/Randy Carlyle’s departure. I think most of that is likely due to two things. First, the team is no longer a black hole in the shot differential department, so things are much tighter. There are no Jerred Smithson’s operating at -10 rel.CF% on a team which only owned 42% of the shot share. There is an actual system in place which can even get players like Ben Smith and Matt Martin close to 50% shot share while on the ice. The other likely contributor is QoC. Carlyle wouldn’t trust Gardiner playing against a peewee AAA team’s second line, so he was heavily sheltered. Babcock trusts Gardiner a little more, although I still think he should be given more responsibility. Rielly and Zaitsev were given the opposition’s top lines as much as possible this year for the most part, but Babcock seemed to use Gardiner in that role a little more toward the end of the season. I’ve said this a million times, but I’d love to see Gardiner get a heavier dosage of the tough minutes with Rielly being a little sheltered instead. Rielly has always been really good at driving offence, while also getting caved in in terms of conceding shots against. I think it would benefit him to play against easier competition and focus on doing what he does best: driving offence, although I understand that the Leafs really want to form him into their own Duncan Keith.

If you follow me on twitter, which you probably don’t, you know that I’m a huge fan of Gardiner and I’d love to say he took another huge step forward. Ultimately, though, I don’t think he did anything significantly better or worse this past season than in previous seasons, but it’s still great to see the general perception of him finally change.

Gardiner has always been really good, but it took all of the bounces going his way in 2016/17 for that negative perception to dissipate.

*stats via corsica.hockey and stats.hockeyanalysis.com

 

  • lukewarmwater

    I think Gardiner has improved his game, the skating and play making was always there, in the old six team league a coach might have been tempted to move him up to forward similar to Red Kelly who had been an all-star defenceman and became an all-star center. Occasionally a player would be moved back from center to defence, with Whitey Stapleton of the Black Hawks being a prime case as he became a leader on some talented Hawk teams.
    I think he similar to a lot of defencemen at his age, he has matured, settled down a bit in his defensive zone and used that speed and passing game to move the puck out. He will never enjoy the robust , physical game but it isn’t his style. He is becoming a more heady player in his style. Good article.

      • Gary Empey

        Has anyone noticed when Gardiner winds up to take a slapshot from the point, Andersen goes into his goalie crouch. Looks like he is expecting the shot to be blocked and bounce out to center leading to a two man breakaway.

    • Gary Empey

      Yes indeed. Andersen says he really enjoys seeing Gardiner wheeling around the other teams net. Andersen is thinking of getting a pair of opera glasses so he can get a better look at him.

  • Benjamin

    I doubt it’s the plus/minus that has people converting. He was given a chance as the top guy during a key part of the season (aka when people were excited and paying attention) and he made the most of it. Hopefully he can keep the ball rolling next year.

    • Gary Empey

      The forwards need to be given some credit. 3/4 of the way through the season most of them finally got their defensive assignments up to Babcock’s system. This made all our defencemen’s job easier. The all started to look good towards the end of the season.

    • lukewarmwater

      Martin I totally agree that Babs has to have a more physical stay at home partner for Gardiner. To allow him to play a more in the rush style of game.

  • Stan Smith

    I agree that Gardiner had a great season this year. I disagree that he was always this good. I truly feel that if the Leafs can make a deal for a decent top 4 righthander, that they will have a pretty potent top 4 next season.

  • killerkash

    I don’t pay attention to stats very much at all but I can tell you from watching Gardner play that he made some good strides this year on improving his game. He has always been prone to making bone-headed mistakes. Some are just plain dumb. Those gaffaws were less frequent this year. It seemed his level of concentration was much better hence less air-headed mistakes. He also seemed to be playing with more confidence when he had the puck and very seldom panicked even when he was surrounded by opposing checkers in his own end. He has the ability to be even better than he was last year and I think a lot of his improvement is due to Babs and the way he’s been handled and brought along. Babs is one of the best motivators in the world of sports and that motivation in Gardner has taken his game to new heights. At least that’s what I have seen and believe is the main reason Gardner has improved the way he has.