TORONTO — That this is very likely Jake Gardiner’s final season with the Maple Leafs is no secret to anyone paying attention. So as teammates stepped up to defend him after some targeted boos by the home crowd, it almost felt like more of a referendum on his tenure in Toronto.
“The guy does everything for this team,” said Mitch Marner. “People don’t give him enough credit ever. He’s a guy that does a lot of plays for us out there, he makes a lot of stuff happen. It’s pretty disappointing to hear that.”
“I mean Jake’s a great player. He’s been a great player for this team for eight years now, maybe more,” added Morgan Rielly, his former roommate and good friend. “He comes to work every day like a pro, works hard. His teammates love him, he’s the most popular guy in this room.”
It was a weird night at Scotiabank Arena.
The Leafs weren’t very good against a desperate Colorado Avalanche team that had dropped nine of 10 coming in. There were mistakes aplenty, including a ghastly turnover by Nazem Kadri on Mikko Rantanen’s tying goal.
Then Carl Soderberg beat Gardiner in a 1-on-1 puck battle and scored short-handed to make it 3-2. Others were culpable in the breakdown — Marner had been stripped at the far blue-line and goaltender Frederik Andersen probably could have been more aggressive with a poke check — but it looked worse on Gardiner.
And it was a killer time to give up that kind of goal.
“I just tried to get body position and then when I did that, I whiffed on the puck,” said Gardiner.
He didn’t see a shift for the final 5:31 of the second period, sitting near the end of the bench with his gloves off.
When Gardiner’s number was called again in the third he heard boos from a small group of fans while handling the puck. They grew in intensity with each passing shift, continuing even after Toronto briefly tied the game on the way to a 6-3 loss.
It seemed completely out of place.
These are not Dion Phaneuf’s Leafs or Bryan McCabe’s Leafs or Larry Murphy’s Leafs. Or anyone else who has felt the wrath of championship-starved fans in this city. This is a star-laden team that owns the sixth-best points percentage in the NHL even after going 3-5-0 since the Christmas break.
But why Gardiner? Why now?
He had a brutal game against Colorado, unable to turn the tide against a furious attack, but on this night, he was far from alone. Even after he was beaten for the short-handed goal, there was still more than 25 minutes left for the Leafs to get it back.
“Guys make mistakes out there all night,” said Rielly. “That’s the way the game is. It’s played on ice so things happen that can be unpredictable.
“It just happens that ends up in back of the net. If not, it’s probably a nothing play.”
Gardiner has played more games for the Leafs than anyone else on this team — 534 in total — and is basically the only one in the dressing room with a first-hand memory of waffles being thrown on the ice and SaluteGate and both Game 7 losses in Boston.
In the last one of those, in April, he was minus-5 and took ownership of the blown lead that ended the Leafs season.
“Yeah, it was not the way we saw it going,” Gardiner said that night. “Had a lead going into the third period, and personally I got to be better. A lot of this game is on me. And it’s just not good enough, especially in a game like this. It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up. There’s not much I can say, really.”
There was emotion in his voice when he met reporters again on Monday, although it only bubbled to the surface when addressing the fact his teammates defended him after the boos.
“Those are the guys that you play for,” said Gardiner. “That’s good.”
The 28-year-old defenceman has always had a high-risk, high-reward element to his game, but it’s telling how fervently he’s been defended by Mike Babcock in recent years. The coach is unafraid to tell it like it is and has repeatedly said that Gardiner does more than enough good on the ice to make up for the occasional brain cramp.
He took that same position after a game where the Avalanche owned a 21-6 advantage in even-strength shot attempts while Gardiner was on the ice.
“What I would say is that he’s a really, really good player. A really important piece,” said Babcock. “He didn’t play good. The good thing about our fans is they’re passionate, they want us to win, they want us to play way harder than that. … They paid their money, they’re allowed to say what they want. The bottom line is he’s an important player for us, we need him to be good.”
Even if the incident ends up as nothing more than a blip on the radar, it’s a reminder of how much is at stake for Gardiner over these next few months.
He’s playing out the final year of his contract and seems destined to become a salary cap casualty like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov last summer. He’s lived through the dark times with the organization and can see the light now.
But that’s not all that has changed in this building.
“[Being booed] hasn’t happened before, that’s for sure,” said Gardiner. “Not something you want to hear. But plays happen in the game and fans are passionate, and they want to win.”