Johnston on Gardiner: Leafs playing with fire?

Ben Hankinson's #FreeJakeGardiner tweet has forced a situation for the Maple Leafs that had been simmering just below the surface to be laid out for everyone to see.

TORONTO – Ben Hankinson certainly got plenty of bang for his buck.

All it took was a simple 17-character tweet — #FreeJakeGardiner — for the agent to make a strong statement on behalf of his client. It also forced a situation that had been simmering just below the surface for the Toronto Maple Leafs to be laid out in the open for everyone to see.

Clearly, the organization didn’t appreciate it.

“I don’t really pay attention to what agents have to say,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after practice on Wednesday. “I don’t live in the Twitter world. We make our judgments and our assessments on our players.”

That Hankinson, a Minneapolis-based agent for Octagon, chose to post the tweet about an hour after the team’s 5-2 loss in Winnipeg on Tuesday night assured it would make the maximum impact.

Emotions were running high in the wake of Toronto’s first three-game losing streak of the season.

And while it might be tempting to dismiss the entire incident as an overreaction to social media, it’s worth asking at least one question first: Are the Leafs playing with fire here?

Let’s not forget that Jake Gardiner was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team a year ago and arguably only lost his spot on the Leafs because of the concussion he suffered in December. Since returning to the American Hockey League in late January, he’s logged huge minutes for the Toronto Marlies and received nothing but praise from coach Dallas Eakins.

It’s little wonder why the 22-year-old would be chafing for another shot in the NHL, particularly with a Leafs team that includes blue-liners Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer — all of whom were behind him on the Marlies depth chart during the NHL lockout.

For his part, Gardiner has said all of the right things publicly and continued to do so in the wake of Hankinson’s tweet.

“Sometimes people can blow things out of proportion and I don’t think he meant anything by it,” said Gardiner. “I’m not going to let that distract me. … That’s just my agent’s thoughts.”

The biggest factors working against Gardiner are the number of players already on the Leafs roster and the NHL’s waiver rules. The team has been carrying eight defencemen — well-paid veterans John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek have both been relegated to the press box — and only Holzer can be returned to the AHL without first passing through waivers.

Gardiner’s own waiver status also isn’t helping.

Once he appears in three more NHL games, he’ll become waiver eligible — which means his next callup is essentially a permanent one.

“He’s caught in a roster thing right now,” Eakins said of Gardiner.

In hindsight, there’s a feeling among some close to the situation that Gardiner might have rushed himself back into action with only limited practice time prior to his two NHL appearances this season — against Pittsburgh on Jan. 23 and the Islanders on Jan. 24.

The fleet-footed defenceman didn’t look like himself in those back-to-back games and was soon demoted to the Marlies, where he’s remained ever since.

“Jake had an opportunity here,” said Carlyle. “He played two games for our hockey club and we felt that he was nowhere near what he needed to be. … Jake needed seasoning in the American Hockey League and when we feel it’s time for Jake Gardiner to come back we’re going to make that decision.

“We’re not going to be influenced by anybody.”

Eakins believes that Gardiner has been ready to return to the NHL for the past couple weeks.

The Marlies have dressed just five defencemen on a couple occasions recently, which has caused them to play Gardiner in excess of 30 minutes per night. He’s had no trouble handling that heavy workload.

“His game is very good,” said Eakins. “I’ve challenged him (because) our team needs him to be the best player on the ice every night. On most nights, he’s done that. He’s played very, very well.”

A couple roster decisions are looming for Leafs general manager Dave Nonis.

Forward Joffrey Lupul participated fully in Wednesday’s practice and appears to be close to a return from his fractured right forearm. The uncertainty on the blue-line is also difficult to ignore, especially after seeing the Leafs allow 28 goals in the past seven games.

There has been an ongoing dialogue in recent weeks between Gardiner’s agent and Leafs management, according to those who would know. But the young player’s patience is clearly running a bit thin.

It’s hard to fault Hankinson for doing his job and advocating on behalf of his client — he essentially made a point that Gardiner couldn’t.

At this point, the best thing the defenceman can do is continue performing at a high level on the ice, starting with Wednesday night’s Marlies game against the Lake Erie Monsters.

“From his agent’s point of view, I’m not sure how well thought (out) it was,” said Eakins. “Jake’s got a game today. Him and I have a plan in place on how we’re trying to get him back to the NHL and part of the plan is for him to be the best player on the ice every day.

“To do that you have to be mentally free of everything and just be worrying about the game.”

Much easier said than done.

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