Since the lockout, many defenceman have burst into the league as rookies, made the transition almost seamlessly, earned praise from virtually every corner of the league, and significantly raised expectations going forward.
What often ends up happening is the defender suddenly finds himself mired in a "sophomore slump"; no longer able to simply ride the wave of emotion of being a rookie pro and shake up the bumps and bruises of being a pro athlete night in and night out, no longer able to surpise opponents who have a body of work to scout their tendencies, they struggle to get the same opportunities they did as a rookie. Then insatiable fans wonder "what's wrong with him?" when he doesn't repeat his meteoric rise into the league. Lather, rinse, repeat, without fail, every year.
In recent years, we've seen this scenario play out with Tyler Myers after winning the Calder Trophy. We've seen it with PK Subban after bursting onto the scene in the playoffs for the Montreal Canadiens. We saw it this year with Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks.
Jake Gardiner has made a slow and steady progression in his first season as a pro, and could be well suited to skip that fall from grace. His potential as future cornerstone of this Leafs lands him as our runner-up in the Leafs Top 25 Under 25.
When Gardiner was acquired by the Maple Leafs last year in the Francois Beauchemin deal, Leaf fans were excited to be acquiring a young defender who possessed world-class skating ability. The Leafs D, with several plodding defenders (such as MIke Komisarek and Luke Schenn, neither of whom are particularly known for their skating abilities) and having dealt Tomas Kaberle, desperately needed an infusion of young defence who could skate.
Gardiner was the biggest surprise in Leafs training camp, forcing his way onto a blueline crowded with the additions of Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles, relegating Franson to the press box and taking a spot in the opening lineup. He has been there almost the entire season, with a brief period where he rotated in and out of the lineup, and a one-game trip to the Toronto Marlies to keep him playing.
Gardiner's rookie season has not been without its ups and downs. Gardiner's skating is his best attribute, but he has occasionally gotten himself into trouble by skating into trouble areas on the ice trying to make a play happen. When it works and he is able to navigate his way through he has been able to turn a nothing play into a legitimate scoring chance, but when it doesn't it has led to turnovers. He's made some defensive miscues, where he's been out of position or overpursued the attacking player, but I think those can be attributed to rookie mistakes more than some glaring hole in his game.
Jake has looked very comfortable on the blueline this season, playing with poise (TM Pierre McGuire) well beyond his years. His teammates have taken to calling him "Silver Stick"; a reference to the award the NHL provides for all players who reach the 1,000 game milestone, and to his ability to play with a calming presence and to not be fazed by the transition to the NHL. At 21, Jake Gardiner is the youngest defenceman to suit up for the Leafs this season, and looks like he has plenty of room to grow as a player.
Selecting Gardiner at #2 might be one of the more controversial selections in our Top 25. What is it about Gardiner that gives him the nod over James Reimer, Luke Schenn, Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri?
I'm probably not the guy to ask, since I'm the only one who Gardiner 4th. But since these rankings were compiled, here's what I've gathered; Gardiner probably has a potential to be a top 4 defenceman in the NHL, maybe top 2. Reimer has the potential to be a starting goalie in this league, maybe among the top half. Colborne and Kadri have the potential to be top six scorers on a good NHL team.
Of all of them, Gardiner's probably the closest to actually achieving his potential. Gardiner hasn't looked out of place at all playing 20 minutes a night this season, and I think he's done a pretty good job trying to keep his game simple in order to succeed while making the jump. He has gotten into trouble occasionally, but his skating is just at such a high-level he's been able to cover up a lot of his mistakes.
I think what this has emphasized for me is from a development point of view, you can never have enough defenceman. Gardiner was available because Cam Fowler fell to the Ducks and they also had Luca Sbisa and Justin Schultz (who apparently the Leafs pushed hard to acquire). Having another guy like Gardiner allowed the Ducks to make a move that helped them without damaging their future. I mean, they'd probably love to have Gardiner back riow, but I don't know if they'd feel as if they've missed an opportunity they'll never get back.