Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Gardiner Off to a Strong Start in Preseason


With a new coach, the young Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman has a chance to step away from the heavy criticism he has received the last couple of years

The past couple of seasons have been tough for Jake Gardiner and the Toronto Maple Leafs. However with a new head coach in place, the organization will look to Gardiner as a vital component of their defence core moving forward.

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In two preseason games, the 25-year old looks confident and strong, which is a good sign for the Leafs. In the second game, he set up William Nylander for the game-tying goal against the Montreal Canadiensm and then scored the game winner in overtime.

Gardiner looks like he is playing with more confidence. That should be encouraging to Leafs fans, who have seen him struggle over the last couple of seasons.

After a strong rookie season, the Leafs felt they had a franchise corner piece in Gardiner after acquiring him from the Anaheim Ducks. When Randy Carlyle took over as head coach, the young defenceman had a tough time adjusting his style of play, as Carlyle preferred a more physical brand of hockey.

Gardiner is the type of player that excels in finding open lanes to move the puck or skate with it himself. However he would struggle to contain players in the defensive zone, because he is not overly physical and other players tend to outwork him for the puck.

After the game against the Canadiens, Mike Babcock was not shy about how Gardiner stacked up in his second game in consecutive nights:

However, while Babcock believes Gardiner is a good player, he says it will be important for them to”build him up“. One important message the Leafs head coach wants to stress to his players, is that the best way to succeed is to play more with the puck in the offensive zone – something the Leafs have struggled with in the past.

A player like Gardiner has the skill to be a good possession player, but if he is not able to get the puck, then he will not be as effective. Even through two preseason games and after a week in training camp, both Gardiner and Babcock are seeing things that will help him become a better player:

From the looks of it, Gardiner is on the right path out of training camp, which is a positive sign. However, it is still too early to say whether this will be the case during the regular season.

Some people are expecting the Minnetonka, Minnesota native to be paired with Morgan Rielly this season, because they were playing together in the first preseason game. However that will probably not be the case, because the Leafs defence is going to have its struggles – if Gardiner and Rielly are the two best defencemen, it is better if they play away from each other.

One will probably play with Dion Phaneuf, while the other will be on the team’s second pairing. This will likely work out better for many reasons.

Dec 8, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson (4) and defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) and defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) look on from the bench against the Boston Bruins at Air Canada Centre. The Bruins beat the Maple Leafs 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

One is because both players have had their struggles in the defensive zone, so it would be best for them to play with a player who is more physical. The other is because Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas have struggled out of the gate so far in training camp, and they may not factor into the Leafs top four.

With a lot of questions on defence, it would be best to have Gardiner be the leader on the second pairing. His partner could be a younger player like a Stuart Percy, Scott Harrington, Martin Marincin or Viktor Loov, who gets a chance to play a big role this season.

Then there are veterans like T.J. Brennan, and Matt Hunwick, who may get a chance as well, although they will probably figure into the Leafs bottom pairing. That is why having Rielly and Gardiner together would limit the Leafs options.

With the strong start Gardiner has had in camp, it would be no surprise to see him play a pivotal role this season. This would in turn benefit Phaneuf, with the Leafs wanting to take some pressure off their captain, so he can also play better.

Next: Who to watch out for in training camp

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