Jake Gardiner returns to practice as Maple Leafs need him most

Jake Gardiner returned to practice in a non-contact jersey and spoke on how he was progressing from his back injury that kept him out of the Maple Leafs lineup since February 25.

TORONTO – The notion that he may have already played his final game in a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.

The thought his sore back might be so beyond stretching, massage and rest that it could require surgery ahead of a chance to strike gold in unrestricted free agency.

The idea he might miss the playoffs and a chance to silence the boo birds and redeem himself from the nightmarish Game 7 in Boston a year ago, where he broke down on the ice (a dash-5) and off, taking all the weight of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ third-period group-effort collapse on his own shoulders.

All of it has raced through Jake Gardiner’s mind over the past month, as he’s “working his bag off” (Travis Dermott’s phrase) to claw back into Toronto’s lineup for the hockey that matters.

“You get stuff going through your head all the time,” Gardiner said Thursday, avoiding details of his mental challenges and physical condition upon meeting reporters for first time since being shut down on Feb. 26. “But it’s been getting better, so that’s a positive.

“When you’re hurt, it’s tough. You almost feel like you’re not part of the team. It’s not that same chirpin’ guys every day, especially when they’re on the road. I got a son at home now, so that helps distract me a bit. So, that’s been good.”

The whole situation surrounding Gardiner and the Maple Leafs feels tentative and tenuous, and not just because the very player Leafs Nation booed a couple months back is the one they’re now antsy to cheer for.

What is positive is Gardiner returned for his first full team practice Thursday, albeit in a red, non-contact sweater.

Also positive: Dermott, who’s sat out the past 14 games rehabbing a shoulder injury, participated in a yes-contact sweater and is likely to return to the lineup Saturday in Ottawa.

“He hasn’t been cleared yet. They never give you that get-out-of-jail-free card till the last second,” coach Mike Babcock said. “But, I mean, he’s wearing black. He’s ready to go.”

What is certain is the Leafs looked like a mess in their own zone for stretches on Wednesday while surrendering another four goals in a 5-4 shootout loss to lottery-bound Philadelphia. Toronto needs Gardiner to join Dermott on the healthy side of the ledger if they have any hope of defeating a powerhouse Bruins club looking two giant steps more in sync.

“He generates offence, makes unbelievable plays, he’s good defensively,” Babcock said.

“So we’ve missed him, and it’s very apparent. When he’s ready to play, he’s gonna play.”

Right now, Gardiner is taking his recovery day-by-day, and there is no timeline given for a return to contact. The hope is to squeeze the veteran into at least one of the five remaining regular-season games ahead of April’s flight to TD Garden.

“Timing-wise, getting in the groove of things, I think that could be huge if I could,” Gardiner said.

“You want to be flying going into the playoffs.”

In the past 14 games contests without two of their top three puck-movers, the Leafs have gone 6-5-3 with a dreadful 3.86 goals allowed per game.

For context: The team with the worst goals-allowed average this season is Ottawa at 3.64.

Surely starting goaltender Frederik Andersen’s recent swoon — a save percentage of .890 in March — hasn’t helped fuel optimism in a city plagued with post-season anxiety, but the defensive issues drive deeper than the tall man in the crease.

“A lot of GMs I’ve had over the years have said: ‘You should always get a guy hurt about two weeks before you’re thinking of trading him and find out what the value he is to your team. You find out sometimes you love him a little more than you thought.’” Babcock mused.

“I don’t think that’s the case with these guys, ’cause we know they’re good players. Not only do they play good defence, but they do good things offensively on the blue line and they keep the play alive and generate offence for your forwards.”

No Leafs defenceman has better goals-for percentage when he’s on the ice at even-strength than Gardiner (60.64); Dermott is also a positive in that regard (53.16).

So while the ambiguity around Gardiner’s future won’t lift anytime soon, his teammates take solace in seeing him join the drills and flash his frequent smile as he zips up and down the ice, starting, again, to feel like one of the guys.

“Jake’s always a guy that’s positive, great guy to have around. Real good guy for me to look up to,” Dermott said. “It was kind of weird how we were both going through the same type of thing at the same time, where we were in here every day together.”

Toronto and Gardiner got a taste of life without each other, and it was bitter.

How much would it mean to the 28-year-old personally to complete his comeback and return to full health in time for the playoffs?

“It’s huge,” Gardiner said.

“Last year did not end well, obviously. Hopefully, this year is our year.”

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