Gardiner ready for most important season yet after emotional Game 7

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner talks about getting over Game 7 of last years series with the Boston Bruins, playing in Toronto and contract negotiations.

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – Jake Gardiner calls them a "tough couple weeks."

That’s because the pain of the Game 7 loss in Boston didn’t dissipate immediately after the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman bared his soul in front of the cameras on April 25. Even as teammates rallied around him – and supportive texts rolled in from other NHLers who saw video of Gardiner telling reporters "It’s the most important game of the season and I didn’t show up" – the sting of being on the ice for five Bruins goals against remained.

It prompted Gardiner to go searching for some answers during the off-season. The 28-year-old even decided to relive part of his forgettable performance.

"I watched some of the goals and what probably different scenarios could have happened," Gardiner told Sportsnet at the outset of Leafs training camp. "I didn’t rewatch the game. I just saw some highlights and thought about it a few times."

Even though the memory should be well buried by the time the puck drops again for real in a couple weeks, the way last season ended for Gardiner is worth revisiting now.

There was some bad luck and spotty coverage in Game 7 – the worst of it coming when Jake DeBrusk blew by him on the eventual winning goal in the third period. But there was also his decision to take ownership of what happened during an emotional post-game scrum with media members in which he said "a lot of this game should be on me."

That went a long way with teammates.

"Well it’s accountability," said Nazem Kadri. "It takes a lot of courage to be able to come forward and say ‘Hey, I sucked."’

"We were all pretty down, but I think Jake really stepped up and showed a lot of leadership the way that he tried to put the onus on himself," added Morgan Rielly. "He’s a grown man, I think he handled the situation maturely. He moved on from it and he’s ready, he looks great. You’ve just got to move on from it."

Easily overlooked in how the season ended was how much of a positive it was for Gardiner overall. He finished with a career-high 52 points – tied with Rielly – and saw the Leafs outscore the opposition 69-55 at even strength with him on the ice despite starting more shifts in the defensive zone than he had previously in Mike Babcock’s tenure as coach.

It’s telling that the Leafs engaged Gardiner’s agents at CAA Hockey in talks on a contract extension over the summer and are still looking to get something done with potential unrestricted free agency looming next July 1.

He’s got a lot of backers at all levels of the organization.

"I think he knows how valuable he is to us," said general manager Kyle Dubas.

This promises to be Gardiner’s most important NHL season on a couple levels. Not only is he platforming towards his next contract, but the Leafs are looking to adopt a style that sees them play with the puck more often. They want to be something better than mediocre when it comes to possession.

Gardiner has always been an above-average puck-mover with an ability to tilt the ice – a particularly useful skillset with the depth of scoring talent the 2018-19 Leafs have up front. Being able to deploy him and Rielly on separate pairings is one of the reasons management has resisted trying to swing for the fences on a trade for more defensive help.

"When people ask [about our defence corps], I think they’re asking ‘can you go out and land one of these high-, high-end top-10 defenceman in the league-type people?’ But I think that underestimates what Morgan and Jake have done," said Dubas. "I think if you have a set way that you want to play – and play defensively to get the puck out of your end – you need to find players that play that style, not necessarily players that are the de facto top two or three defencemen in the league."

The truth is the Leafs will probably have trouble signing Gardiner because of an impending cap crunch that will see Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all playing on new deals come next season. They are hoping to sell each of them on the merits of taking a little less money to make the puzzle pieces fit.

No matter how it ends up playing out, Gardiner hopes to follow in the footsteps of former teammates James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov by keeping his contract situation in the background as much as possible this season.

"They didn’t talk about it much [last year], to be honest, which is good," he said.

Gardiner’s come a long way since earning the nickname "Silver" from older teammates during his rookie season in Toronto – a reference to the silver stick typically awarded to 1,000-game NHL veterans. (The implication was that he did whatever he wanted on the ice, according to a member of that team).

Now he’s the second-longest tenured Leafs player behind Kadri, and intent on authoring a better ending to the season ahead. That applies to both how things go on the ice and off it, with a long playoff run and new contract in Toronto at the top of his wish list.

"You don’t really realize how big hockey is until you come here," said Gardiner. "It’s a fun place to play in – in front of the fans, the team’s obviously good right now and I just like the city as a whole. I’d definitely like to come back here if I could."


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