There has been no player on the Toronto Maple Leafs more divisive than Jake Gardiner in recent memory. As one of the longest-tenured Maple Leafs, Gardiner has been through his share of highs and lows. The team has gone from a playoff contender to a bottom feeder, and back to a contender during his time in Toronto. However, he has consistently been a topic of conversation for the team’s fanbase.
Now, as the Maple Leafs play through a tumultuous stretch with injuries hampering their roster, fans are being forced to accept that the team is far better with Gardiner on it.
Life Without Gardiner Harder Than Fans Expected
Since suffering a back injury on Feb. 25, the Maple Leafs have not played well. While there are many factors contributing to the team’s poor play, Gardiner’s absence has been one of them. It is no secret that the team has problems on defence, but without him, those issues have become even more apparent.
In addition to Gardiner’s injury, the Maple Leafs have lost Travis Dermott and likely call-up Calle Rosen to injuries, as well. If they were short on defensive depth before these injuries, they have none of it now. For nearly a month, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, and Igor Ozhiganov have played considerable minutes. For a team that was expected to contend for the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season, those three players should not have regular roles on the roster.
Since Gardiner suffered his injury, the Maple Leafs defence has been stretched razor-thin. Holl had been a healthy scratch for virtually the entire season before being asked to jump in to a team that had played over 60 games. While he does have potential and the decision to scratch him all the time does not fall on him, he is simply not fresh enough to be asked to play with a team in the middle of the season.
Meanwhile, despite Marincin and Ozhiganov playing somewhat regularly, they are still risky options to play against good teams. Marincin is not a good puck handler and the Maple Leafs are a team that relies on the stretch pass and being able to get the puck out of their own zone. He does a few things well, but now that he is being asked to play upwards of 13 minutes a game, he needs to be able to move the puck.
At the end of the day, Gardiner is the Maple Leafs’ third or fourth best defenceman. While that may not seem great at first glance, it stands out when you look at the level of the players being asked to fill his void.
The Maple Leafs are 2-3-0 in their last five games. Despite coming away with a win against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 15, the team had been thoroughly outplayed before they turned things around in their most recent game against the Buffalo Sabres. There were a number of issues, but there was a glaring hole in the Maple Leafs defence left by Gardiner which reinforces Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire’s point that Gardiner may not be as easy to replace as some fans believe.
Gardiner’s Turbulent 2019
This season has been a roller coaster for Gardiner as he has played through criticism and his own poor play at times. The most infamous moment was when he and the team played a particularly bad game against the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 14. In the second period, he was outworked by Carl Soderberg, who scored a go-ahead shorthanded goal on the play.
Gardiner was benched for the remainder of the second period and booed whenever he touched the puck in the third. Regardless of whether or not the fans were justified, this game was the breaking point for many people. He was clearly emotional after the game and his teammates were quick to defend him as reported by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.
Aside from that game, he has been fairly consistent and has 29 points in 60 games this season, though he has been sidelined with a back injury since Feb. 25. He has made his fair share of mistakes on the defensive end, but he has also continued his offensive stride from last season. Gardiner’s season will likely be looked back on for his mistakes, however they should not define his season. If you can only pick out a handful of truly noteworthy blunders in an 82-game season, he has probably done alright for himself.
Gardiner & Maple Leafs’ Rocky Road Nearing its End
It has been a long road for Gardiner since making his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs on Oct. 6, 2011. He has had a tendency not to produce in the Maple Leafs’ biggest games and will be remembered for it. He made notable mistakes in the team’s infamous Game 7 meltdown against the Boston Bruins in 2013, and had perhaps the worst game of his life in Game 7 against the Bruins in 2018. Though not the most comforting thing for Leafs fans, Gardiner has always stood up to his mistakes, as reported by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox after the Game 7 collapse in 2018.
It has been games like those that led to the exasperation with Gardiner in January. While no player is above criticism, it also seems people forget the positives he brings to the team. He was tied with Morgan Rielly for 15th in points by a defenceman last season with 52 points each.
Gardiner is a talented offensive player. His offensive contributions have been substantial, especially over the last few seasons. However, he never quite completely figured out the game in his own end. If the Maple Leafs were a team with minimal defensive issues, this flaw may have been more forgivable for some fans. However, the Maple Leafs have been struggling defensively for years now, and those struggles have seemed to amplify the discourse towards Gardiner amongst the fanbase.
As the season nears its conclusion, the end is also likely near for Gardiner’s time with the Maple Leafs. His offensive production should fetch him a contract with an AAV of approximately $5 million and the Maple Leafs are facing a cap situation that will not allow them to spend that kind of money to keep him around. If this stretch without him has been any indicator, next season may be more difficult than some think.