Maple Leafs’ Playoffs: Gardiner’s Last Hurrah?

I’ve already gone on record as saying that I don’t believe Jake Gardiner will be back with the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. In fact, I have said that I don’t think Gardiner should even consider re-signing with the team. It’s not because I don’t like Gardiner: in fact, I think he’s a really good player. I just think there’s a time in a young man’s life when it’s time to move on, and I believe that time is now for Gardiner.

By “now,” I mean specifically after the season is over. But, the season isn’t over yet. And, who knows? Anything can happen in the playoffs and, in hockey, usually does. That’s what makes the National Hockey League so different from Major League Baseball, the National Football League, or the National Basketball Association. In those leagues the teams who should win usually do.

Jake Gardiner, Frederik Andersen
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner congratulates goaltender Frederik Andersen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP /David Zalubowski)

The Tampa Bay Lightning should win – right? But, almost every season some surprise team seems to jump up and make a run. History suggests that hockey fans will be in for more surprises this playoff season.

But, no matter what happens in the bigger playoff picture, this season’s playoffs will be Gardiner’s last hurrah with the Maple Leafs.

What Gardiner’s Carrying Into This Playoff Series

Gardiner is carrying a lot into this playoff series. First, he’s carrying the memory of last season’s horrible Game 7 when his team went down to the Boston Bruins after carrying a one-goal lead into the third period. Second, he’s carrying the more recent memories of being the poster-child for all-things-wrong with the Maple Leafs this season. Third, he’s carrying the rust of being out for 20 games with back injuries and having only two games to get his rhythm back.

Last Season’s Series

Last season, the Maple Leafs lost Game 7 to the Bruins. There’s no other way to say it than Gardiner carried much of the guilt for that loss. The Maple Leafs were ahead by one goal in the third period, the Bruins scored four straight goals, and the Maple Leafs lost 7-4. Gardiner was on the ice for all three of the Bruins’ last goals. Other than Ron Hainsey (24:19), Gardiner played more minutes than any other Maple Leaf (24:01): he was minus-five.

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The loss was tough to take, and Gardiner said so. Gardiner blamed himself for the Maple Leafs’ elimination, noting that he “let a lot of people down.”

This Season’s Story

This season, Gardiner’s fall from grace began on Jan. 14. In a loss to the Colorado Avalanche, he coughed up the puck and cost his team a goal. He heard the boos of hometown fans the entire game, and the booing barely stopped the remainder of the season. That game was so bad that The Hockey Writers’ Will Billinghurst wrote a post about it, rhetorically asking if fans had a right to boo a player like they booed Gardiner.

Maple Leafs offseason plans
Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner has improved his game considerably since the 2015/16 season (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Gardiner, who had been experiencing back issues, finally took 18 games off to heal. With two games left in the season, the fans’ public whipping boy came back from injuries that had benched him the last part of the season. And, like the script of a cheesy movie, Gardiner’s Maple Leafs are back facing the Bruins one more time in the first series of the playoffs.

Few expect the Maple Leafs to beat the Bruins, but they could. If they did win and Gardiner played well in those victories, it would be a fitting end to Gardiner’s career with the Maple Leafs. And, if the Maple Leafs could win more than one round, even better. Personally, I can’t think of a better ending to what hasn’t been an easy season for the 28-year-old defenseman.

Gardiner Is Valued by His Coach

Gardiner has played his entire career with the Maple Leafs; that’s more than 500 games. He will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. Even if Gardiner wanted to sign again with the Maple Leafs, the team’s cap situation won’t allow general manager Kyle Dubas to offer Gardiner a market-value contract.

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On April 9, Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock said it clearly, “I think Jake Gardiner is a really good player. I think he is someone that people have decided isn’t a good player and so they pick on him. I can tell you right now that we can’t find another one.”

Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Funny thing about that comment because, no matter what happens to Gardiner and the Maple Leafs in this season’s playoffs, the Maple Leafs will soon be trying to find another player exactly like Gardiner somewhere. Fans, he’s going to leave. He will find a team that appreciates the exciting defenseman he is, and he will sign a contract the Maple Leafs could not have matched.

My Two Hopes for the Playoffs

I am a hockey fan, and I have grown to really like the Maple Leafs this season. I hope they go on a crazy run and win the Stanley Cup. I am awed by their skill-players. I am excited by their fast-paced game. And, they make me crazy when they don’t seem to show up and make me wonder if they even have a pulse.

Related: Leafs vs. Bruins: Rivalry Renewed

So, hope number one for me is a Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs – their first in 50 years.

My second hope is that Gardiner has the playoffs of his hockey career. I hope he comes off his back injuries that, I think, have made him a shell of himself. I hope he plays so well against the Bruins that (a) he exonerates himself from any past “crimes” Maple Leaf fans believe he has committed this season or last and (b) he increases his free agent value and signs a huge contract with a team whose fans will enjoy his play for years to come.

Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s really simple to me. The Maple Leafs are a much better team with Gardiner in the lineup than when he isn’t. How the team played in his absence during the latter part of the season should be clear enough for anyone to see. He’s been a big part of the team’s success and Babcock is right: they can’t find another one.