Johnston on Leafs: Gardiner still waiting to be freed

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner.

For 45 claustrophobic minutes earlier this week, “Free Jake Gardiner” took on a new meaning.

Trapped in the elevator at his downtown condo, sitting on the floor next to his girlfriend, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman could be forgiven for wondering what else might go wrong in a season gone wrong.

“The lights were on,” Gardiner said in recounting the incident. “I wasn’t very happy and she was laughing.”

The 22-year-old has seemingly been unable to get out from under a cloud all year, and while anyone could theoretically get stuck in an elevator, Gardiner acknowledged that it’s almost fitting that it happened to him now.

It’s been nearly a month since agent Ben Hankinson famously tweeted “#FreeJakeGardiner” in a bid to get his client called up from the American Hockey League.

That wish was eventually granted, but it’s been far from smooth sailing from there. Gardiner hasn’t looked very comfortable on the ice and was scratched for the fifth time in 11 games when Toronto visited the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.

“I don’t think we can sit here and say that Jake’s playing at the top of his game because he’s not,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said this week. “But he’s a young player and with young players sometimes there’s a longer learning curve. There’s a different way to approach things.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we put him in situations that he can survive in.”

What a difference a year makes.

Gardiner was a revelation after surprisingly cracking the Leafs roster at age 21 and quickly becoming a core member of the defensive corps.

Teammates even took to calling him “silver stick” — a reference to the fact he carried himself like a player with 1,000 games under his belt in the NHL (an achievement usually marked with the gift of a silver stick).

Now Gardiner finds himself taking optional skates with the other scratches and trying to do whatever he can to earn the trust of Carlyle. It hasn’t been easy.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” said Gardiner. “I feel like I can definitely contribute, but we’re going to do whatever the team needs to win and play the guys that he wants. I’m just going to try to contribute any way I can.”

For the foreseeable future, that might have to be from the press box.

The acquisition of Ryan O’Byrne at the trade deadline has left the Leafs with eight healthy blue-liners and it’s not inconceivable that Gardiner, the youngest member of the group, might be forced to do a lot of watching down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Carlyle acknowledged that the player is in a difficult spot.

“He’s handled it like a professional,” said Carlyle. “Obviously, he would like to be in the lineup, but again it’s the chicken before the egg theory: Coaches say if you play better you play more and the players say if you played me more I’d play better.”

Ice time wasn’t much of a problem during Gardiner’s rookie season, when he was third on the team with an average of 21 minutes 35 seconds. He has only hit that number in one of eight games this season.

Carlyle has asked the offensively gifted defenceman — one he calls an “above average” skater — to focus on his own end a little more than predecessor Ron Wilson did last year.

And Gardiner has apparently taken that message to heart.

However, for one reason or another, the results have yet to show.

Had Gardiner not suffered a concussion while playing in the AHL in December, he almost certainly would have been better prepared for the start of the NHL season a month later. He’s been playing catch up ever since.

If there is a silver lining for the 22-year-old it’s that the organization appears ready to be patient with him. Labelled an “untouchable” by former GM Brian Burke last year, there is no sense that the Leafs are souring on Gardiner now.

“Our expectations are for him to skate the puck and make good decisions with it, a good first pass,” said Carlyle. “I think that Jake has tried to be a lot harder in the defensive zone, he’s worked at it in practice. He’s been a good soldier.

“All of those things are things that are encouraging and now it’s just a matter of him getting comfortable and getting his confidence.”

Better days almost certainly lie ahead — another fact Gardiner can take some comfort in.

It was the player himself who alerted the world to his experience in the elevator on Monday night when he sent out a tweet to his 58,000 followers. Apparently, Gardiner’s girlfriend was “messing around” by jumping up and down when the elevator stopped abruptly.

They pushed the help button, spoke with an operator and waited for nearly an hour.

“We had no cellphone service,” said Gardiner. “(We were) just sitting on the floor in there.”

Eventually help arrived. And Jake Gardiner was freed.

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