For a season filled with promise, surprise and eventually heartbreaking sadness, there are signs of hope in the Leafs’ young core heading into next season. Nazem Kadri looks poised to become a consistent offensive threat (now they just have to re-sign him and hopefully that happens soon), James Reimer, barring any major setback, is looking to be the number one goalie for Toronto, and has shown he can hold his own in this league. Then there is stud defenseman Jake Gardiner, who showed that he has the talent and confidence to play in this league despite playing limited minutes last season.
Gardiner posted four points with no goals this year for the Leafs. He only played 12 games due to some coach not thinking straight, but he was one of the better possession players for a Leafs team that seemed more interested in hitting rather than controlling the puck. Day in and day out, he made the right passes at the right times, and his defense has gotten better each year. For a Leafs defense that has been brutal, it was really important that the team and fans got to see just how good Jake Gardiner really is. That trade with the Anaheim Ducks has worked out immensely with the additions of Joffrey Lupul and Gardiner coming to Toronto. Lupul has become a reliable (albeit injury-prone) top scoring forward for the Leafs, and Gardiner is just starting to impress.
As far as the “advanced stats” part of Gardiner’s game goes, he posted a team-high in Corsi Relative (team shot attempt differential when he was on the ice minus off-ice) with a 30.5, and the Leafs’ Corsi when he was off the ice was a dreadful -31.69. It was not hard to tell when Jake Gardiner was on the ice because the Leafs were at their most effective. They played their best hockey when they moved the puck and used their speed instead of playing the physical game and thinking that hits lead to scoring opportunities. Jake Gardiner was a catalyst when it came to getting the puck moving and the Leafs needed just that.
The next step now for Leafs’ management should be to give this guy more ice time. It was a season that had Leaf fans see some of Gardiner, but not as much as they had hoped. Due to the confusing approach by head coach Randy Carlyle, the Leafs went with more of a rough-and-tough game plan that saw them ultimately lose to Boston in seven games, and saw Jake Gardiner spend more time in the press box than on the ice helping his team. Maybe Gardiner at times did not fit Carlyle’s system, or maybe Carlyle felt Gardiner did not have much “experience” coming into the season. Whatever it was, it did not help the Leafs’ cause one bit.
Having Mark Fraser or Korbinian Holzer play big minutes instead of Gardiner showed weakness for the Leafs and teams took advantage. Of course, having John Michael Liles suffer injuries and struggle throughout the year made having Gardiner that much more important. Putting too much responsibility on guys like Holzer and Fraser is a recipe for disaster. Instead, they should have kept Gardiner in the lineup and have him paired with someone like Cody Franson or JML, just to get some puck-moving going and to create more offensive chances, because the Leafs are not going to beat teams (especially Boston with how they are built) by just trying to out-hit them. That is simply not going to work. You can’t have Colton Orr playing big minutes because he does not produce chances and is a liability defensively. The more talented players Carlyle has on the ice the better the product, and putting Jake Gardiner in helps that cause to a great degree.
It will be a year of regression for the Leafs come next year. They had a surprisingly great year that ended in depression with the Bruins beating them in seven games, so expect a downfall for the Leafs when the 82-game schedule renews come opening day. The Leafs do not have a number one center in Tyler Bozak after signing that crazy deal, and it’s hard to predict what the Leafs will get out of David Clarkson. The Leafs backup plan in net is concerning since Jonathan Bernier has not really proved himself enough, and the D corps is still a big problem that the Leafs need to fix. What the Leafs have in the farm system in terms of defense is bright with up-and-comer Morgan Rielly looking like he could be a real stud. It is not the end of the world when it comes to the Leafs’ defense system, but as good as Rielly seems to be, it is still too early to have him play big minutes.
So Randy Carlyle and company are stuck with a very complicated year with having to deal with the hardships of the defense corps for the season (or until Dave Nonis does something smart for once), but having a gifted player like Gardiner in the lineup offers a shred of hope. Gardiner has proven he can manage the minutes when given the chance, and has shown he not only has gotten better with each game he has played, but has gotten other players around him to play even better themselves. 82 games is a lot, and if used smartly can be used to grow young talent and to test them out on the ice. Now, I am not saying just bring the Marlies into the NHL and have them play every game, but give some young players chances to show what they can do. Jake Gardiner is already a shoe-in to make the team and should not be replaced, yet it will be a long and frustrating year for the Leafs that will see them regress huge, so Nonis and Co. should try and develop the young talent they have in the system. The way the NHL has its new “Northeast” Division laid out, the Leafs might not have a real choice but to give some young guys, like Gardiner, NHL ice time.