Who Is Jake Gardiner?
I'll apologize in advance if I'm stepping on Mr. Aldred's toes here. But as a fan of the collegiate game, Toronto's acquisition today of Jake Gardiner from the Anaheim Ducks struck me as ripe for analysis.
If Jake Gardiner was playing in the Dub or the OHL, we'd have a veritable bevy of insiders and scouts already willing to talk about who and what he is. We'd have analyzed the aptly termed "key to the deal" to death. We'd know what to expect out of him. The "centre of the hockey universe" would have heaped praise on his high points or cast aspersions on the still developing parts of his game. Brian Burke's "Vatican of hockey" would have added another statue to its basilica on Bay Street.
The temptation is going to be to compare this trade to last year's Dion Phaneuf deal which also brought in an established NHLer and a well regarded defensive prospect. Keith Aulie got lucky. Dion Phaneuf's shadow is so big that until the Saskatachewan kid made his debut with the big club this year, it was easy to forget that Aulie was even a part of the deal last winter. Lupul's shadow is nowhere near as all-encompassing.
To understand how Jake Gardiner became a Toronto Maple Leaf, you have to first understand how he became an Anaheim Duck.
In the 2008 Draft, there were a couple of big time variables in the first round. They came in form of two American born offensive defensemen. It was already expected to be the year of the defensemen with Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo slated for the Top Five with Tyler Myers and Colten Teubert following right behind.
John Carlson was the easier to grasp product of the two Americans. He was big, surly and possessed a cannon. Most also knew Carlson was headed to the OHL's London Knights the next season regardless of what U-Mass said. Carlson's physicality and shot along with his play in the more well known USHL made his progress easier to chart.
Jake Gardiner was less well known. The Minnetonka High School product dazzled scouts with his skating. It was known that the senior defenseman was a recent convert to the blue-line from his regular spot as a forward. In his final season with Minnetonka, Gardiner simply dominated mustering 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points in 25 games. Finding elite skaters with Gardiner's raw size is usually a tough enough task; when they come with his puck poise, there's usually a handful of GMs who fall in love with him as a prospect.
Brian Burke was obviously one.
In three years since, Gardiner has played on the deepest blue-line in college hockey. As a freshman, he was caught behind Jamie McBain, Brendan Smith and Ryan McDonagh. The first two were two of the premiere offensive defenders in the college game. In his sophomore season, Wisconsin's blue-line included Gardiner along with the returning Brendan Smith(DET) and Ryan McDonagh(NYR), an increased role for Cody Goloubef (CBJ) and newcomer John Ramage (CGY).
This year, with the graduation of Smith, McDonagh and Goloubef, Gardiner is Wisconsin's big horse on the blue-line and he's playing like it. So far, the junior has put up career highs in goals, assists and penalty minutes at the NCAA level. For a kid once described by a scout as "the riverboat gambler" in terms of his offensive ability, Gardiner has also stabilized his defensive play and his play away from the puck.
The question most Leafs fans were asking today is, is Jake Gardiner the future piece that Brian Burke is bringing in with intention of, eventually, replacing Tomas Kaberle?
At the risk of giving a convoluted answer, the answer is both yes and no.
In an interview with TSN's Bob McKenzie, legendary Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves stated that Gardiner's strengths were his skating and his ability to be a defensive outlet. He makes a great first pass and he can skate the puck out of his zone at an elite level. Can he replace Tomas Kaberle on the defensive side of the puck? The answer is likely yes.
What Mike Eaves also said to Bob McKenzie is that he doesn't see Gardiner as a first unit powerplay defenseman. For a guy whose recently coached both Jamie McBain and Brendan Smith, that's a key statement. Both those players have turned into guys at the pro level that are without question first unit powerplay defenders. Eaves' argument was that Gardiner lacks the kind of hockey sense that allows him to see the moving parts on the powerplay. What you're getting is maybe more of an active powerplay defenseman than a passing catalyst like Kaberle. So, the answer is he likely will not replace Kaberle's pure offence.
Given Gardiner is a point-per-game defender this year and a former first round pick, it's likely he'll leave college at the end of this season. He'll probably spend next year with the Marlies where Dallas Eakins has done a great job developing Toronto's youth so far. The Leafs will be better able to assess then if Gardiner's offensive style will pan out as a pro.
After the 2008 Draft and on the eve of the 2011 Trade Deadline, we're left asking who is Jake Gardiner? The answer remains the same. An enigma.