Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins says defenceman Jake Gardiner is good enough to play with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now, but there’s simply no spot for him in the lineup.
“He can play in the NHL right now, but it’s not as simple as that,” Eakins told the Marlies official website following practice Tuesday. “He’s got to be the best guy every night (on your AHL team); the big team has to have a hole for you; you have to be able to take somebody’s spot out of that NHL roster and that’s what pro sports is all about. There’s always somebody coming for your ice time and you can never take it for granted.”
Gardiner has been battling back from a concussion sustained in December while playing with the Marlies during the NHL lockout.
The 22-year-old played two games with the Maple Leafs this season before being sent back down to the Marlies in late January.
Eakins believes the more Gardiner plays in the AHL, the better it will be for him in the long run.
“Jake, he just needed to play,” Eakins explained. “These injuries like a concussion … it’s different than a knee or a shoulder. A guy hurts his shoulder, we’re absolutely destroying this guy on the bike (for conditioning), you get them on the ice we’re just killing them so they’re ready when they come back.
“When you get anything with your head they do nothing, they do absolutely nothing until they’re symptom free. They lose conditioning, they lose timing and you can’t just throw on your skates and practice a couple times and be ready to play.”
Gardiner had a breakout rookie campaign with the Leafs last year with 30 points in 75 games and so far this season with the Marlies, he has 20 points in 28 games.
“He needed a few weeks (with the Marlies),” Eakins added. “We’ve run him very hard as of late, he’s played big minutes and I think he’s very close to having his full conditioning back.”
If a spot opens up on the Leafs blueline, Eakins believes Gardiner will be ready even though it’s uncertain when he might get the call.
“That the battle that Jake’s in right now. His conditioning is where he was last season and at the start of this season, but there’s other guys up there playing very well for a number of games in a row. You have to make your spot and that’s going to start here with his continued good play.”
The Marlies visit the Hamilton Bulldogs on Tuesday, while the Leafs next play on Thursday when they visit the Carolina Hurricanes.