The unexpected leap of Jake Gardiner: Less risk, more ceiling

HC’s Doug MacLean tells Dean Blundell & Co. that Jake Gardiner is thriving under Mike Babcock, and would be able to step up and take on more minutes if Morgan Rielly’s injury is significant.

We never imagined writing the next paragraph with such certainty four months ago, but circumstances, people and opinions all change. Leaves do, Leafs do. So, here we are.

Jake Gardiner looks like he will be a Toronto Maple Leaf for a long time.

When the brass-tacks triumvirate of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock took over Leafland, we were skeptical whether Gardiner — a fleet and gifted risk-taker playing a position that, by nature, seeks to limit risk — would stick in this city.

Of all Leafs playing on contracts inked by the Dave Nonis’s ousted regime, Gardiner is the only one signed beyond 2017-18 who survived The Purge (and, no, we’re not counting Nathan Horton).

Management stamped its approval of Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri in April as core, youngish pieces it would build around, but the jury was still out on Gardiner.

He was fun but risky, and his mistakes in the D-zone stuck out as much as his wizardry in the O-zone. As with Kadri, murmurs of tension between the raw defenceman and former coach Randy Carlyle ran rampant.

You can find “Should the Leafs trade Gardiner?”–type speculation articles stamped with the years 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Some observers went so far as to suggest a move to forward, à la Brent Burns. No more.

Our opinion, and maybe yours, has flipped dramatically.

With Morgan Rielly shelved with a lower-body injury, Gardiner (temporarily, at least) becomes the Maple Leafs’ undisputed No. 1 defenceman.

He played a career-high 29:24 Tuesday, the night Rielly went down, and a team-high 26:14 Thursday, posting a plus-1 rating in a 5-2 stinker against New York.

“A coaching change can be a good or bad thing. It’s been great for me,” Gardiner says of Babcock.

“It’s a normal coach-player relationship. If he sees something I need work on, we’ll talk about. I think that’s something all the guys really like about him: you always know where you stand.”

Babcock spends time reviewing video of Gardiner’s gaffes with him to sharpen his positioning and decision-making, and the player calls this process fun.

“It’s all positive,” Gardiner says. “When you know you’re doing something wrong and you want to get better, he’s always there to do that.

“I can get better in every area of my game, but probably getting physical and boxing guys out in front of the net – that’s one thing we focus on.”

Under Babcock, Gardiner is the point man on Toronto’s enviable power play, but offence was never the issue. The D-man takes pride in being the first guy up to fill in on the penalty kill when one of his peers is in the box or injured, and he’s increasingly being called upon in critical scenarios.

Then there’s this: Gardiner has never been a plus player, sinking as low as dash-23 in 2014-15. He’s now a plus-11.

“Confidence,” Babcock says. “Just figuring out who he is again and getting his confidence back. A coach can do whatever he wants for you, but until you earn it by playing right…. It’s no different than the workplace: You do a good job, you feel good about yourself. When you don’t, you don’t feel good about yourself.”

When the coach learns that Gardiner, 26, believes he still has another level to go in his development, he grins, wide.

“I’m glad he said that. He’s just a kid in his development. I think Naz is the same way. They got lots of ceiling in them,” says Babcock, noting a need for disciplined training over the summer.

“[Mark Hunter] can do as good a job he wants drafting the best players. If we don’t develop and grow those players, two years later your scouts don’t look very good.”

Teammate James van Riemsdyk has watched Gardiner’s progression up close.

“He’s been really good for us all year long. His skating ability is the thing you notice most when you watch him, and it allows him to break up plays defensively. Offensively, it allows him to do a lot of things. It brings the other team toward him, which opens up passing lanes,” van Riemsdyk says.

“He knows when to skate it and when to move it. Sounds like a simple thing, but it’s very important. Easier said than done. He does a good job of making the right plays, getting us out of the zone and getting us on offence fast.”

Van Riemsdyk lit up when a reporter asked about this unorthodox Gardiner play during Tuesday’s win over Buffalo:

“I know exactly what play you’re talking about,” JVR says. It reminded him of another move Gradiner pulled back in the 2013 playoffs versus Boston.

“Someone was charging at him, he winds up for a big slapper, banks it off the boards, stepped around the guy and starts wheeling around with it,” van Reimsdyk recalls excitedly.

“He’s certainly pretty creative and has a lot of that in his toolbox. He’s getting better about picking his spots with that.”

That’s the thing. Right there.

They’re not trading him.

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