Leo Komarov has just finished making fun of the size of Jake Gardiner’s head, and now Gardiner is sitting in his stall after an off-day practice, and he’s thinking. The Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman has been trying to explain what goes through that head of his — which, truth be told, is quite big — when he gets creative on the ice, when he decides to make a move just inside the opposing team’s blue line to evade one player, then bounces the puck off the boards to himself to get past another, instead of going a safer route, like, say, getting the puck in deep.
“You just gotta pick your spots,” Gardiner finally offers, with a smile and a shrug. “I try to make a lot of plays, and sometimes it’s not gonna work out. Some people might call that high risk, but realistically, it’s making plays to get your team in the offensive zone, or to keep them there.”
In three seasons as Gardiner’s teammate, fellow defenceman Roman Polak has learned one thing about playing with the smooth skater on Toronto’s blue line: “Always be ready, because you never know what he’s going to do.” Polak laughs when he considers whether he’s ever played with a partner like Gardiner. “Actually, never,” Polak says, shaking his head. “He is all by himself.”
There is no disputing that Gardiner is unique. And because he is nothing like your textbook defenceman, because he’s a flashy high-risk-and-reward player, no one on the roster is more polarizing among Leafs fans. You barely have to search to find a “Jake Gardiner Sucks” forum with fresh comments from last night’s game. But the 26-year-old from Minnetonka, Minn., leads the Leafs in a lot of statistical categories, including points from the point and shot attempts. The fact is good things often happen when the Leafs’ biggest risk-taker is on the ice.
And as this young team edges closer to locking up a spot in the post-season — Toronto is fourth in the Atlantic Division, with three games remaining — Gardiner is in the midst of a career year. He is more important to his team than ever before, he’s more confident and he has the trust of his coaching staff. The result, he says, is a feeling of freedom out on the ice: “You’re not thinking as much — it’s more instinctual.” And you won’t find many players with instincts quite like Gardiner’s.
Like his boyhood idol, Joe Sakic, young Jake Gardiner was a forward who wore No. 19, and one of those creative players “always trying out new things,” says his dad, John. He got his first taste of his future position at age 10, but just for a period, when his squirts coach moved him back to give him more ice time in a big sectional game. Gardiner didn’t leave the ice in that frame, and he decided he liked life on the blue line “because you can see the whole ice,” he says now. But his game wasn’t exactly polished. “Skating backwards is a whole other thing,” Gardiner says. “Definitely wasn’t an elite backwards skater then — I’m still not, probably. It takes a while to get good at that.”
No, it’s the forward skating that’s always been easy, and a hallmark of Gardiner’s game. It’s his speed that got him attention from college scouts when he played forward for Minnetonka High School. But when Gardiner’s coach moved him to defence for the last period of a big game — again, in an effort to increase his ice time — that’s when Troy Jutting, then coach of Minnesota State University, realized the speedy kid he’d been recruiting should actually play on the blue line. Gardiner went on a visit to the school, and it didn’t take much for Jutting to convince him to move back. “He told me, ‘There’s 1,000 forwards that can move the puck well, but there’s not that many skating defencemen that can move it well,’” Gardiner says. “I never looked back after that. It headed my career in the right direction.”
It was like a switch had flipped. Gardiner had been getting attention for his play, sure, “but he wasn’t a superstar,” says John. “Nobody was saying, ‘This kid is headed to the NHL.’” As Gardiner explains it, “I was pretty good, but I wasn’t top tier.” But in his senior year of high school, Gardiner played his first full season of defence, captained the Skippers, and averaged two points per game. By the time he showed up for a U-17 national team camp in St. Cloud ahead of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, scouts were everywhere, and Gardiner was interviewing with NHL teams. Says John of the attention his oldest son generated: “All hell broke loose.”
That’s when the NHL dream started to look real. “I thought I was probably gonna make it, because every kid does,” Gardiner says of himself from about age four. “But once I switched back to ‘D’ it was actually like, okay, now I expect to be there and I want to make sure I get there.”
Gardiner committed to play at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for coach Mike Eaves and joined a ridiculously talented blue-line corps that included future NHLers Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and Justin Schultz. “I remember watching this gangly kid with the big head wheel down the ice, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s gonna be a player,’” says Smith, who’s now with the New York Rangers. A favourite big head joke among the college team: “Hey, Gardiner, why the long face?” Smith says, laughing.
Like Gardiner, Smith had recently transitioned from forward to the point, and it was assistant coach Mark Osiecki who helped the two learn gap control and how to block shots, get in the lanes and keep their sticks active. “The teaching of the game for Jake has been a process of how to play without the puck as a defenceman,” Eaves says.
But Gardiner could make up for some of those mistakes with his speed — “that uncanny ability to skate effortlessly,” as Eaves puts it. The long-time coach says he’s never seen a player better on his edges. And while Gardiner leans on that speed to bail him out from time-to-time, over their two seasons together in Wisconsin, Smith noticed an improvement in Gardiner’s defensive play. “He did learn and he made better pinches, had better ideas,” Smith says. “It was a work in progress, for both of us.”
In his junior year, Gardiner played more than 30 minutes many nights, and in all situations. That June, Anaheim took him 17th overall in the 2008 draft, just two picks after fellow defenceman Erik Karlsson.
His final year of college, Gardiner averaged a point per game. The Badgers advanced to the NCAA championship, but lost to Boston University. “We wouldn’t have gotten there without Jake,” says Eaves. That season, the coach remembers having conversations on the bench with the rest of the staff about how much they were going to miss Gardiner when he left. “He was our best breakout guy, by far.
“He could just go back and get the puck and skate so easily by people. If they didn’t have the right angle on him it was like, ‘See ya later.’”
Eaves jokes he told his forwards the plan when Gardiner was on the ice: “Just take off—he’ll meet you at the far blue line.”
Now six seasons into his NHL career, Gardiner’s outlook on breakouts hasn’t changed much since his days as a Badger. “I don’t like playing in my own zone very much,” he says, with a shrug. “I try to get it out of there as often as possible.”
Tyler Bozak is making faces at Gardiner from around a corner, just off the Maple Leafs’ practice dressing room. It’s interrupting Gardiner’s train of thought. Teammates love joking around with No. 51, “because he’s funny, and he takes it really good,” says Komarov. Gardiner dishes it out really good, too: “Leo speaks four languages, but we’re not sure which is his actual fluent language, because he’s bad in all four.” That was the response to those big head comments from earlier.
Gardiner’s been thinking about the last time the Leafs made the playoffs, four years ago. “A lot happened,” he says.
That 2012–13 season as a whole was a rollercoaster for him. After a rookie campaign the year prior in which he played 75 games and put up 30 points, he spent most of 2012–13 in the AHL with the Marlies. Gardiner played just 12 regular-season games with the Leafs that year under coach Randy Carlyle, prompting his former agent Ben Hankinson to famously tweet #FreeJakeGardiner. His confidence as a pro had never been lower. “That was a really difficult time in his career,” says John, who speaks to his son after every game. “I was trying to pump him up, talk to him from a confidence standpoint.” Gardiner saw a couple games in January with the Leafs, and then returned in late March and finished the regular season with the team.
In Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round series against Boston, Carlyle opted to sit Gardiner, and the Leafs lost 4-1. Three nights later, in Game 2, Gardiner made his NHL playoffs debut. “Once I got in, I said, ‘Screw it. I’m just gonna play my game and go for it,’” Gardiner says. He had an assist, and logged 17:45 of ice time in a 4-2 Leafs win. Two nights later, he scored in a 5-2 victory. By the end of the series — which Leafs fans needn’t be reminded of, because it finished with an epic collapse — Gardiner had five points in six games, good for fourth on the team, and he was fourth in ice time, despite the fact he played just six of seven games. “When you get the opportunity, you gotta take it and run,” Gardiner says. “That’s what I did.”
He’s had four different head coaches in his six NHL seasons, and with Mike Babcock, Gardiner feels better than ever about his game. “Each of the coaches here have been different, with their systems,” Gardiner says. “Playing under ‘Babs’ has been great, knowing exactly where everyone’s gonna be at all times. He holds every single player accountable, which makes it a lot easier for us to play.” Gardiner reviews every shift of every game he plays on an iPad, and he and the staff will go over what he did well, and what he didn’t.
He has similar conversations with his dad after every game, and these days, John is hearing only positives. “The biggest thing of late he’s said is that it’s so much easier to play, because they trust him so much,” John says. And he sees that confidence when he watches his son step on the ice, even for warm-up. “He has a little bit of swagger,” John says. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen him. By far.”
Morgan Rielly, who plays on the Leafs’ No. 1 defensive unit, is one of Gardiner’s best friends, and though his buddy isn’t one to talk about how good he’s feeling, Rielly does see a change in Gardiner’s play. “You can tell,” says Rielly, who lived with Gardiner his first two seasons in the league. “Just by the way he’s playing, the way he’s acting. He’s always finding new ways to get things done on the ice. I think that’s part of the fun he has during the game, and he’s having a lot of fun this season. It’s good to see.” Rielly’s lone concern with Gardiner is his friend’s sense of style, because sometimes he’ll show up at the rink in red boots, grey sweatpants, and a neon green shirt. “I think he just likes to, I don’t know, stand out,” Rielly says. Not unlike his play on the ice, really.
Gardiner’s always been good at shaking off bad plays when he’s standing out on the ice for the wrong reasons, but he says it’s even easier this season. That’s partly because the team is winning, and partly because he’s comfortable in his role. “When the coaches trust you, if you make a mistake, you’re not gonna think too much about it,” he explains. “You just go out there and keep playing the same way.”
He has the puck on his stick a lot, and gives it away more than he takes it from the opposition — as Babcock told reporters after a game in early February, “He gets a little haywire, and you have to get him back in the barn once in a while” — but Gardiner says he’s learning to pick his spots, and getting better at knowing when to play it safe. “Definitely not as many glaring mistakes or passes that haven’t worked this year,” he says. What Babcock has stressed is to take care of the defence first, Gardiner says, “and then the offence will take care of itself.”
For the first time in his NHL career, Gardiner is on the good side of plus-minus, and his plus-25 leads the team, and is tied for 10th in the league. Though, “that’s kind of a weird stat,” Gardiner says. Fair enough, but his 40 points — nine goals and 31 assists — are a career-high, too. It helps that he’s passing to guys like Auston Matthews, who can find the back of the net. “It’s been a good year,” Gardiner admits. “Obviously our team’s a lot better, and I think I’m playing better, and being more consistent.” Smith, who joined the Rangers a week before the trade deadline after five seasons in Detroit, says before his team plays Toronto, Gardiner’s name always comes up in scouting reports. “You gotta make sure you get bumps on him, because he’s so fast — make sure you take three hard strides so you get in front of him or he’ll blow you up,” Smith says.
Gardiner spent much of the season playing alongside Connor Carrick, but he’s now paired with 25-year-old rookie Nikita Zaitsev on the team’s second unit. He continues to log a lot of power-play minutes, but has also seen other situations this season. When Rielly was injured for six games in January, Gardiner played against the opposition’s top line. He also logged a career-high 29:24 of ice time during the stretch, the most of any Leafs skater this year.
“I think he’s really come a long way,” says Rielly, who’s three years younger, but has been playing defence much longer than Gardiner. “He can play against the top guys, he can penalty kill, he can play on the power play, he can do just about everything. We always knew how talented he was offensively and how well he could skate and pass. But I think he’s done a really good job of rounding out his game and being a really reliable high-end defenceman.”
This is a big year for Gardiner off the ice, too. In July, he’ll marry long-time girlfriend, Lucy Caishan in Minneapolis. But he’s hopeful he’ll have some important plans before that, during the playoffs. “It’s exciting, especially since we haven’t had that much success here in my career,” he says.
Watching the Blue Jays ignite the city the past two years got Gardiner thinking about the potential of his team to do the same, and it brought back memories of what it was like in 2013, even if that run lasted just seven games and ended with a collapse. “I remember Maple Leaf Square being crazy, just buzzing,” he says. “We still have a picture of it in our locker room. Makes us wanna get back there, because the city was just on fire.”
Gardiner can’t wait for a second taste of playoff hockey again, and to make an impact not just this season, but for years to come with this team. “I think I have more ceiling,” he says. “Hopefully I haven’t peaked yet.”
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