PITTSBURGH – Jake Gardiner will be taken out of the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup for the first time this season when the team visits the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.
That appeared to be the only change involving a healthy player for Toronto following a 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Paul Ranger, who sat out the last two games, will replace Gardiner on the Leafs blueline.
The 23-year-old was in and out of the Leafs lineup last season – most recently sitting out the final four regular-season games, plus the playoff opener against Boston – but had suited up in all 24 games so far this year.
Gardiner has tried to focus on strengthening the defensive part of his game and seemed to be having some success. In fact, he was the Leafs leader in Corsi entering Wednesday’s game. However, a poor performance against the Blue Jackets appears to have relegated him to the press box.
“I’ve just got to make better decisions with the puck,” Gardiner told sportsnet.ca. “I wasn’t very good last game so I think I just need to improve on taking care of the puck a little bit better.”
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle took Gardiner aside towards the end of Wednesday’s morning skate at Consol Energy Center to discuss the move. The player then remained on the ice for extra work.
Toronto has essentially been carrying seven healthy defencemen since Mark Fraser returned from a knee injury on Nov. 8. That resulted in rookie Morgan Rielly being scratched a couple times before Ranger was sat out twice.
The rotating door might continue, especially if the Leafs continue to struggle.
“We make decisions that are in the best interest of the team – what is going to give us the best chance to win, the best chance for success,” said Carlyle. “That won’t change. That’s our DNA and that’s what we’ve been very honest and forthcoming with our players (about).
“Sometimes it doesn’t always sit well with individuals and it shouldn’t. If your number is not called you should be upset.”
While Gardiner was obviously frustrated, he made it clear that he understood why the coaching staff made the decision. “I didn’t play good so I wasn’t too surprised,” he said.
The only other lineup change for the Leafs was expected to be the return of Peter Holland in place of the injured Joffrey Lupul. On Wednesday morning, Carlyle revealed that Lupul’s Grade 2 groin strain would keep him out for the next two weeks.
It looked like Jonathan Bernier would get the start in goal for the Leafs against Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury. It will be the 22nd start in 26 games for the Penguins netminder.