What does Carlyle’s return mean for Gardiner?

Jake Gardiner's 46.4% Corsi ranked No. 1 among all Leafs players last season.

The future of Dion Phaneuf isn’t the only spark that promises to light the Toronto Maple Leafs tinderbox on fire in the coming months.

The furor that promises to follow the report by Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos that the Leafs are shopping their captain – the one who received a seven-year, $49-million contract extension just four months ago — may only be the start of things.

Where the Leafs are really headed this summer may be signaled by what they do with Gardiner, the gifted blueliner with the stubborn streak that seems to drive Carlyle a little crazy. He’s a restricted free agent and — according to multiple sources — not at all a fan of Carlyle. The feeling is likely mutual, and now – in theory – they are stuck together.

Rewind to mid-April: Carlyle couldn’t have known he was going to be getting a two-year extension when he met with the media on the 16th of the month, a few days after the Leafs season mercifully ended. Brendan Shanahan had been announced as the Leafs commander-in-chief the day before; everything Leafs seemed up in the air.

So maybe Carlyle thought he was a goner when he was asked about his end of season meetings with his players. Or maybe he was just punchy. Or maybe he was throwing down a him-or-me gauntlet in the direction of Gardiner, the talented if risky third-year defenceman.

At the moment we don’t know what is going to happen, it’s hard to imagine Gardiner won’t take the news of Carlyle’s return hard – somewhere between depressed and devastated, I’d bet. There’s a good chance he thought Carlyle was vulnerable when they met at the end of the season and took a chance to say his piece.

The same might go for Carlyle knowing that he’s got at least one more season – or part of one – trying to get the uber-confident Gardiner to play what he believes is a more common-sense brand of hockey. In that light it’s fun to again look at Carlyle’s comments from last month now that we know he’s returning.

The question was a simple one: “Did anything interesting come out of his meetings with the players?”

Ordinarily the first rule of press conferences isn’t all that much different than how you approach a customs officer: say only what you need to, and avoid easily detectable lies. Carlyle broke the first part of the rule. Fixing it might require breaking the second.

“There’s some surprising things that come back from players,” Carlyle said of the end of season meetings. “Some things you would never imagine.”

He didn’t have to say this. He could have said a million things. Instead he sprinkled catnip in front of a room full of media.

I asked the obvious follow up.

“Can you give an example of something said that was surprising?”

This could have easily been an off-ramp for Carlyle. Recognizing that everyone likes to hear about surprises and realizing he’d just alerted a roomful of reporters that he was surprised, he could have bailed easily. “We’ll keep that in-house,” would have been an easy out.

But Carlyle didn’t hold back. Was it the last gasp of a man presuming he would be out the door kicking stones in a few days? Did he take the chance to let the world know exactly what he was dealing with as he tried to get players like Gardiner to play hockey the Randy Carlyle way? Who knows, but under the bus went the former Wisconsin Badger.

“One example,” Carlyle offered, warming to the question. “A defenceman – a young defenseman — that’s playing rover-type hockey early in the season versus a more condensed style of hockey, a more conservative style at the end of the season and coming back and feeling that the leash he was afforded at the beginning of the season wasn’t as long as the one he was afforded at the end of the season. Specifically, that one player believes the leash was short, when we believed it was a lot longer than that. It was kind of a surprise.”

Carlyle could have been done there. He didn’t name the player, but the Leafs really only had two young defenceman – Gardiner and Morgan Rielly – and no one believes the rookie Rielly would be the one Carlyle would single out. But Carlyle wasn’t done, and this is where he basically told the customs agent that, ‘yeah, there might be some cartons of smokes in the trunk, right beside the bottles of Scotch I’m trying to avoid paying duty on.’

“And then the comparison of who he compared himself to in the league,” said Carlyle. “That was kind of shocking.”

Translation: Jake Gardiner thinks he’s some combination of Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson or Ryan Suter. Or something Gardiner believes he’s way better than we think he is. He didn’t come out and say Gardiner was delusional, but he didn’t stop far short. The thing with Gardiner is that one day he might be as good as he apparently believes he is. Talent is not his issue. But what Carlyle was communicating is that there’s a big bridge between having talent and having the self-awareness to maximize it.

Maybe that’s good coaching: delivering a hard message to a young player whether they want to believe it or not. Or maybe that’s Carlyle failing to connect with a player who could be a long-term cog on the Leafs blueline.

“Randy, with young guys especially, he’s not real, real, good with them,” said the source, echoing a regular criticism aimed at Carlyle. “He could work with them more — he was an unbelievable defenceman — but he is who he is.”

Carlyle’s comments would have offered all kinds of fodder at training camp next September even if he wasn’t coming back. “What was your relationship with Randy really like, Jake?” But now that Carlyle is back? It’s not fodder, it’s gasoline.

All it needs is a match to set the whole thing on fire.

Should be fun.

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