Toronto Maple Leafs: The Stalled Evolution of Jake Gardiner


Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner has shown limited improvement over four seasons in the NHL

If we’re going to comment on the quick evolution of Morgan Rielly‘s game, then we should also take a look at the stalled development of his defensive partner, Jake Gardiner. Both represent key pieces of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ defence corps.

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  • Gardiner was originally acquired alongside Joffrey Lupul from the Anaheim Ducks at the 2010-2011 trade deadline in exchange for veteran defenceman Francois Beauchemin. While Beauchemin brought a degree of stability and immense experience to the Ducks’ blue line, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a clear win in the trade wars by the Leafs. (They also landed a conditional pick for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, sweetening the deal from their perspective.)

    The Leafs didn’t wait long to put the then-21-year-old defenceman into action; he made his NHL debut at the start of the following season – a somewhat surprising candidate to make the team out of training camp.

    Dec 23, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) skates against the Dallas Stars during the game at the American Airlines Center. The Maple Leafs shut out the Stars 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    In his first season with the Leafs, Gardiner rewarded that faith by recording 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) and a minus-two rating across 75 games. To date, this is easily his best season as a Leaf since he set career highs in average ice time per game (21:35 minutes), shooting percentage (8.9) and Shots Against (plus-14). Unfortunately, he posted a less healthy minus-68 in Unblocked Shots Against. For a rookie, he also showed great poise on the power play in limited opportunities, registering one goal and six assists.

    Heading into his sophomore season, everyone expected big things from Gardiner – “He’s the future of the blue line, the offensive engine of the back end,” we were told – but injuries would set him back in 2012-2013. Gardiner suffered a concussion while playing for the Toronto Marlies just before the start of the shortened season, which hampered him throughout the year. He would ultimately spend the rest of the season bouncing between the Marlies, the Leafs and the press box in search of his lost mojo.

    Nov 8, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) is knocked down by New York Rangers right wing Kevin Hayes (13) at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    This would be reflected in his stats for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. Gardiner would hover around the numbers he set for himself in 2011-2012, showing no real signs of improvement by the end of his fourth year in the NHL.

    In fact, there were even small signs of regression when it came to his defensive game. Gardiner finished the 2014-2015 season with a minus-23 rating under conventional stats and a minus-11 rating in Shots Against and a minus-55 rating in Unblocked Shots Against under the NHL’s new “enhanced” stats. This actually represents an improvement over his enhanced stats for 2013-2014 – he was minus-184 in Shots Against and minus-226 in Unblocked Shots Against – but it still reflected a failure to repeat the success of his rookie season and improve on it.

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    We’re now heading into Year Five of the Jake Gardiner Experiment and we still have no concrete sense of what to expect from his. He could dazzle us or just as easily frustrate us; there have been no consistent signs of improvement over the course of his four-season career.

    Having said all this, few doubt Gardiner’s “potential”: we can see it every time he carries the puck and creates something out of nothing. The Leafs are so confident in his ability to improve that they handed him a five-year contract extension last year worth $20.25 million. I might be more cautious on his potential, but I won’t deny it.

    Dec 29, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) passes the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    There are two sides to Gardiner that I notice when he plays. There’s the side that we first saw in 2011 – the side that leaves everyone in awe – and the side that seems to turn away from the play without reason. I can’t be bothered to count the number of times Gardiner has either skated or thrown the puck away from the action. It’s like he still lives in fear of that concussion; this might be what’s really holding him back.

    One minute he carries the puck with great confidence, the next minute he coughs it up like lunch money to the school bully. I don’t get it, and I doubt Gardiner gets it either. It’s something we’ve come to expect from him, however. We’re just waiting on the final confirmation now – has his development really stalled or even regressed? – which next season should provide. He’s under pressure to turn things around.

    What do you think? Is it fair to say Gardiner’s development has stalled or even regressed? Are we being too tough on him? Does he deserve more time and space to figure things out? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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