NEW YORK — The Toronto Maple Leafs sent Jake Gardiner down the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League following practice Friday afternoon.
Gardiner just began his second season in the NHL on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, after having been cleared by doctors and given the go-ahead by head coach Randy Carlyle.
He played 17 minutes against the Penguins and followed that up with 21 minutes in Thursday’s home loss to the New York Islanders. Gardiner was clearly not playing at the same speed he was last season, but was this demotion warranted? It was expected that he would have a little bit of rust.
“The reality of it was he wasn’t skating to level he was capable of,” Carlyle said on Saturday. “We know that his No. 1 asset is his ability to move around the rink.”
Gardiner suffered a head/neck injury on Dec. 8 in an AHL game. He didn’t take part in on-ice activities with his team until the Friday before the season started. Many thought Gardiner would be activated for Saturday’s game against the Rangers, but he got cleared earlier than expected and it was assumed he would need a few games to get up to speed.
“I thought the first game in Pittsburgh it was quite evident that he didn’t have his legs underneath him,” Carlyle said. “In the game in Toronto against the Islanders, he skated better but his decision making was one where that’s not Jake Gardiner. That’s not the Jake Gardiner that we’ve become accustomed to.”
Rather have him make the trip as a healthy scratch, Leafs general manager Dave Nonis figured he could use the time with the Marlies for a game or two. Nobody was called up to take Gardiner’s spot on the roster and there are no plans to do so.
“I know he took it hard,” said defenceman Mark Fraser, who will play in his 100th career NHL game tonight. “He’s a phenomenal player. With my experience playing with him in the minors, he’s too good for that league.”
Gardiner had been telling the staff that he was ready to return. While physically he was ready to come back, perhaps Gardiner could have used some games with the Marlies as a conditioning stint before making his way back into the Leafs lineup. Given the short training camp, his time to prove himself was limited.
Given the nature of Gardiner’s injury, timing is always the hardest thing for a player to get back when he returns. John-Michael Liles suffered a similar injury last season and has admitted on several occasions that his timing wasn’t quite there.
James Reimer is another example of a Leaf who struggled with timing upon his return. He struggled and symptoms eventually came back, forcing him to be shut down for the remainder of the season.
Perhaps the expectation that Gardiner would perform to his ability right away was unfair. But the timing of his being sent down was unusual.
“We know that he’s gonna play on our team (again) it’s just a matter of when,” Carlyle said.