While the Toronto Maple Leafs may be concerned about the backwards step taken by defenceman Morgan Rielly this season, they should be happy with the production they’re getting out of fellow blueliner Jake Gardiner. Rielly was pegged as being the Leafs’ best offensive defenceman and perhaps a future all-star and team captain, but he’s been struggling in both ends of the ice this season with 22 points after 55 games and a minus-15 rating. Rielly’s just 22 years old though and still has plenty of time to live up to his potential even though he is a minus-61 for his career.
On the other hand, the 26-yar-old Gardiner of Minnetonka, Minnesota, has evolved into a top-20 NHL defenceman in just about every category. Gardiner’s offensive skills appear to be getting better with each season and he had a career-high 32 points after 61 games this year on nine goals and 23 assists. Gardiner had twice hit the 31-point mark previously and also had 30 points in a season. His best goal output in a season is 10, so should be able to tie or better that mark this campaign. He also has two game-winning goals in overtime in 2016/17.
Most fans and critics always knew Gardiner was a pretty good offensive defenceman so being the 21sthighest-scoring blueliner may not be such a shock. What may be surprising though, is his plus-23 mark after 61 games, which was by far the best on the Leafs and ranked him 12th overall in the league in that category and seventh-best for defencemen. Gardiner is well known for his high-risk plays during games which often lead to giveaways. He’s far from being the perfect defenceman because of this and due to his lack of physical play for somebody who stands 6-feet-2-inches tall, but he’s obviously doing something right.
Gardiner’s strengths are his skating, passing and offensive abilities. He can usually be depended on to carry the puck out of his own end or make a tape-to-tape pass to one of his forwards. In addition, he’s usually the quarterback of the Leafs’ power play unit, which was leading the league at 23.1 per cent on February 26th. We should also mention that Gardiner’s quite durable as he’s missed just eight games due to injury in the past three seasons and has suited up for every contest so far this campaign. And for fans of NHL analytics, Gardiner’s possession numbers have been excellent this year with a 53.8 Corsi rating.
Gardiner signed a five-year deal worth $20.25 million before the 2014/15 season faced off and it’s proving to be a good contract for the Leafs. He still makes the odd mistake, but so do all hockey players. Except, Gardiner’s gaffes are often magnified in Toronto and some fans use him as a scapegoat, much like Hall of Famer Larry Murphy was when he played for the Leafs. The majority of fans are starting to appreciate Gardiner’s skills though and what he brings to the team on a consistent basis. He has all of the tools needed to be a top blueliner in the NHL and it’s started to show ever since Mike Babcock took over as head coach and the team’s overall talent and skill level has improved.
Babcock has shown confidence in Gardiner and that has resulted in self confidence for the player. The coach has said Gardiner is always willing to improve as a player through practice and that’s why he’s averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game. The rebuilding Leafs and Gardiner have certainly improved this season, but they’re still in a dogfight to make the playoffs. But even if they fail to make the postseason, the club’s brass and its fans have been pleasantly surprised by the team’s performance so far this season as it appears it’s well ahead of schedule.