Who or what is Jake Gardiner? Without having to look it up I can tell you he was born in the state of Minnesota and he’s 26- years- old. I can tell you a little backstory of him being a forward turned defenseman. I can tell you he went to the University of Wisconsin and that he was paired with Justin Schultz. I can even tell you he was drafted 17th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and I can tell you he is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in his sixth full season with the club. I can tell you plenty of factual tidbits like that. The question of who he is for any avid hockey fan of the blue & white is a lay up. Okay, so moving on, “what” is Jake Gardiner? The “what” being, “Alright, describe the player to me.” Well he’s…I’d say if you think about it, he…so what I find about Jake is…all I know is…Listen can I just tell you how much he weighs and be done with it.
I have written, rewritten, changed tones, angles, title and content at least ten times preparing here to try and share with you my interpretation and evaluation of Jake Gardiner, the hockey player. Entering, or currently in, the prime of his career, certainly we should have a grasp on the blueliner at this point. Many reading are probably raising their hand right now claiming they do, but the stark contrast of guaranteed opposing views scream otherwise.
One would think collectively we’ve accrued more than enough information by now to come up with an informed and suitable group answer. This isn’t a rookie we are talking about. The “sample size” is large enough. Everyone has varying opinions but most of you I’m confident are devoted to the Leafs, the game, and are knowledgeable in its intricacies. With that said, if you were to ask five Maple Leafs fans, diversified in hockey ethics, watching the same games night after night, you are very likely to get five different answers. Actually, five is too many. Let’s narrow it down to the two “factions” as I attempt here to not use such terms as eye test or stat geek, but we all know who we are and where we stand. I’m aware full consensus is rarely reached in hockey analysis, but general is usually achievable. When it comes to Jake Gardiner, it’s not even close to the case. We could get together to deliberate for weeks and if anything we’d likely be further apart and possibly frustrated.
Now, today is not exactly a group exercise. As is the case in hockey editorials or opinion pieces, I’m the lone voice, or self appointed judge/arbitrator. So I’ll forewarn anyone and everyone at or near the far ends of the Gardiner spectrum, those who think he’s a future Norris trophy winner or the others who would like to see him punted from the roster, there are things I’m about to say that won’t please you. I’ve been in Leafs blogging hibernation a bit and this topic woke me up from a slumber because I’ve always had an interest in Jake and his mixture of raw skill combined with the, let’s call them “quirks”, we’ll get into. I’m not alone in my intrigue or investment either. When his name comes up it’s a free for all with heated debate coming from both his supporters and detractors.
Polarizing? Lol, yeah you could say that again and I guess it’s the term we throw around here most often. We’ve had a plethora of these types here. From Phaneuf, to Kadri, to Bozak, to Reimer, the list goes on. I would go way beyond polarizing in describing Gardiner though. He’s a borderline enigma. By definition; a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand.
I’ve been trying to figure him out since he came, flipping and flopping, and I can’t put it off anymore. Slide open the door and slide into “Freddy’s Mystery Van” (yes, Freddy from Scooby Doo who bears a striking resemble to our subject) as we attempt to solve this curious player case. Maybe we, or at least I, can finally come to terms with who, or more aptly what, is Jake Gardiner?
For starters we should basically establish what it is we are trying to find out or uncover here. I believe the overall goal is to figure out where to slot him in on the depth chart. What is he on your backend? Particularly and obviously, this Toronto team moving ahead, taking into account a degree of foreshadowing. When and if the Maple Leafs are of championship calibre, what role will Gardiner fill? Will he even be here? We are intent on labelling players as “Top 9”, “Top 6”, “Bottom Pair”, “Top 4”, “Stud #1” and as you know it’s necessary practice for management to make these projections but it’s not always cut and dry. Such is the apparent dilemma in regards to #51.
Right from the very beginning of his time here you knew there was something different about Jake Gardiner. I think it’s fair to say we saw a specialness. You could interpret that the wrong way, but no, I’m talking about the way he skated, the movements, the shiftiness. A wild untamed horse galloping up the ice. As you may remember, it really felt like we stole Jake Gardiner upon arrival. In an era when Toronto had almost nothing for prospects, a puck moving D-man seemingly falling into their laps in exchange for nobody we’d miss, well this was big news. There were no mixed reviews out of the gate. How could the Ducks move this guy? Is there something we are missing? Ron Wilson’s system of constant pinching and activation seemed a perfect fit for a young freewheeling D, and for Gardiner it was. In his rookie season he amassed 31 points and truly was the bright spot.
The first questions of decision making and what would be described as soft or erratic play arose in passing early on, pushed to the side of youth where they belonged. But you wondered if maybe there were glitches in the program. I’ve thought long and hard on how to explain the progression of Jake Gardiner since then. The rearguard rover is now well past the arbitrary 300 game mark his second NHL coach Randy Carlyle (who Gardiner’s style or propensity for miscues did not gel with and his confidence suffered as a result) once laid out for him and others as the threshold of when we can begin our judgements on a young defenseman. I don’t blame the coach for trying to round out the player, and I don’t blame Gardiner for any stumbles. Sometimes the fit just isn’t there and recently Gardiner himself didn’t blame Carlyle. Believe it or not, the intentions were well placed. Still, there are times players have to be able to paint outside the lines to be their best self. Whether that was the scenario here, who knows. What we do know is along the way there have been peaks and valleys in both his play and consequently how he’s viewed. But along with his point totals (between 30-40 regularly and headed for a career high in 2017), something else has remained consistent. The best case to be made for Jake Gardiner lies in all his underlying numbers and percentages.
Now look, I’m not the one to personally present his analytic portfolio. I can assure you. In the absence of my own comfort and interest, though not incomprehension, I will enter into evidence every positive sliding graph, every flowchart, or any metric or collected data highlighting Gardiner’s high level of performance. I’m not about to make this about old school vs new school or any of that jargon. My personal views on the weight Corsi carries I’ll leave to the side, today isn’t the forum. What is apparent about this player is he has always had a positive impact on shot attempts. Translation is when 51 is on the ice the Maple Leafs spend more time on the attack than defending. He tilts the ice, as they say. Does this tell the whole story? Of course not. Sometimes answers lead to more questions in analytics and I’m not qualified to answer them. What I do have along with many of you is a journeymans ticket in being around the game and for relics like myself I’ll simply refer you to Gardiner’s antiquated statistical measure of +25. Take that for what it’s worth, which often isn’t much depending on match ups, team quality, whatever. A well known Toronto scribe once told me on a bad team the guy with worst +/- is probably the most reliable player since the coach still looks down the bench and keeps throwing him out there in spite of his “Arctic-like” below zero numbers. So if none of these quantifiable measures appeal to you, then the one I’ll leave you with is Jake Gardiner has been on the ice for the third most goals scored in all situations than any defenseman in the NHL. Who is ahead of him? Brent Burns and Ryan Suter. They aren’t too bad and also play a fair bit more. My point is this, regardless of your feelings towards analytics his stand out advanced stats cannot and should not be ignored. While I’m at it, you know what else shouldn’t be ignored? When Jake Gardiner makes an inexplicably crazy ass play.
Before you say “here we go, another guy who just sees the odd blatant turnover and doesn’t understand the good outweighs it all” I’ll stop you right there. I can remember being a boy, full of love and interest for the game and with it the curiosity. Ray Bourque was a personal favorite, the Bruins were on TV a lot since the Leafs were rarely in the postseason. Add to that the Habs were on most Saturdays on the East Coast with Boston being their Adams division rival. I started to see Bourque making mistakes, at times even costly ones. As much as the verbatim between my father and I escapes me when I sought him out for guidance on how the league’s best defender could be making these mistakes, the message never did. Even good players make mistakes, especially defenseman who are relied on to get the puck up ice. The same philosophy held true for me with Brian Leetch, Sandis Ozolinsh, whoever it may be, right on up until today with Jake Gardiner. Now I’m not comparing him to those player by any means. I only share this walk down memory lane, maybe unnecessarily, to stress that you need not bother tarring me with that brush. I get it. There will be no overemphasis on Gardiner’s miscues. But I won’t, nor should anyone, act like these instances don’t occur. I won’t pretend that I don’t see when Gardiner hesitates to hit the breaking forward and curls back or continues to proceed up ice while teammates wait at the opposing blueline standing still. I won’t turn a blind eye to one handed swats, pirouettes taking him out of positional coverage, or jaw dropping giveaways right on the tape. You see there’s a human element to this game which involves emotion, one of those being trust. Those who aren’t exactly fans of the player, or even those who are, get frustrated with him for the breakdowns alluded to above, and it’s warranted. When a player makes awkward, unexplainable plays at times you are well within your rights to have issues and concerns. This is not a slewfoot on Jake. Instead it’s a recognition of his deficiencies. Which in my opinion, any failure to do so is foolhardy practice. They don’t make him a “bad” player per se. They make him imperfect.
Is he the superstar many of the data trackers tell you he is? Is he the guy people pile on over careless yet often inconsequential momentary mental lapses? If you truly feel Jake Gardiner is a bonafide #1 or top pairing defenseman, underutilized and underappreciated, I’m not asking for you to change your stance and if it’s how you feel why would you. If you’re someone who can’t wait until Gardiner is off this club and believes he is a complete trainwreck, well you’re entitled and I suppose I can respect that too. What I will ask you is if you would allow yourself to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the truth lies somewhere in between.
A few years back, one of the very first blogs I wrote was titled “Jake ‘The Snake’ Gardiner – Future Intercontinental Champion Of The Leafs Defense”. What I meant back then is I never saw Gardiner becoming the main event on our backend. He was never going to be the headliner of a great D-core. My projection for him was to settle in as an important part of the organization, but a guy I’d never expect to carry it. Is this in fact what has, or is, playing out?
As you see I’ve wrestled (sorry) with metaphorical Gardiner phrases or comparisons (“a sports car that is a lot of fun to drive, but hard to relax in since the airbag could go off any second” was one), but I would say the best I can come up with, and the coach’s usage would concur, would be – Jake Gardiner is a weapon. A weapon can be extremely effective, yet if improperly handled can be equally damaging.
Toronto’s fan base shouldn’t be too hard on itself for it’s conflicting assessments on our ol’ buddy “Gards” because you better believe the Maple Leafs management team, made up of strong minded successful hockey men, is no different. There’s not a chance they all submit the same reports on Jakey, but in the here and now the only one who matters is the coach, and he may have Gardiner pegged better than any of us. If it’s okay with all of you, I’ll defer my conclusion to him.
Babcock has used the defenseman primarily against softer match ups, with a focus on keeping his zone starts preferably in the offensive end. Gardiner is averaging just under 22 minutes a night, third on the team but only a minute or less behind the ice time leaders of Nikita Zaitsev and Morgan Rielly. It would be hard to argue this strategy hasn’t worked out extremely well for Gardiner, who despite a dip her and there, is enjoying his best season in the NHL.
So who or what is Jake Gardiner?
“He’s a breakout machine.”
“Sometimes he gets a little haywire and you have to get him back in the barn once in awhile.”
Keeping these two fairly recent quotes of Mike Babcock in mind, we may have finally found our answer. I know I have.