In our first edition of the Leafs Top 25 Under 25, Jake Gardiner was maybe a bit of a shock choice in the runner-up position. The panel was enamoured with Gardiner' surprise addition to the Maple Leafs roster in his rookie season, and blessed with a skating and passing game that couldn't help draw parallels to the recently departed Tomas Kaberle, a similarly talented offensive puck-moving defence who burst onto the scene as a rookie over a decade earlier.
It would be almost an impossible task for Gardiner to have moved up in this edition of the countdown, what with Phil Kessel delivering his best season to date as an NHLer. Moves made by the Maple Leafs during the offseason, including drafting another prodiguous offensive defencamen in Morgan Rielly and adding a skilled young forward in James van Riemsdyk would increase the pressure on his hold on the #2 spot.
Once again, the fight for 2nd place was quite a close one; just four points separating second from third. Ultimately, the 2008 first round pick, acquired from Anaheim along with Joffrey Lupul for defenceman Francois Beauchemin, settles for the bronze medal this time around.
Like most rookies, Gardiner did a lot of things well that matched his specific skill set, and had a lot of teachable moments when it came to some of the other things. The fact that Gardiner struggled in certain areas of his game is perfectly okay, and anyone who says differently is a goddamned fool.
Gardiner skates with and without the puck at a world-class level; those specific skills will pretty much ensure that he has a career in pro hockey. His progression as an NHLer will come down solely to how he can adjust and evolve the remainder of his game, including his decision-making in the offensive zone and defending against NHL calibre forwards.
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Gardiner edged James Reimer to grab the #2 ranking on our inaugural rankings. This time around, with stiffer competition at the top of our rankings, Gardiner does slip to 3rd but only just, as his point total of 197 is just one less than he accrued in January..
Gardiner's rankings remain as high as 2 and as low as 4, though where last time it was an even split of 2nd place and 3rd place votes, this time around 3rd place votes have the majority. JP Nikota had the lone vote for 4th, dropping him one position, but he stressed that the decision had less to do with a change in Gardiner as a change in the situation around him.
It's not as though Jake Gardiner had a poor season. The Leafs' rookie saw a lot of minutes on the Leafs' blueline in 2011-12 - albeit relatively soft ones - and his much-discussed skating continued to shine. On top of that, Gardiner displayed a willingness to jump into the rush, and patience with the puck once on the attack. Sure, he was burned more often than we'd like to see in the defensive zone, and questions remain about his strength and ability to recover the puck, but he did well enough this year to provide Leafs fans with the hope that, one day, his positional game (particularly at 5-on-5 in the D-zone) will improve enough to permit Randy Carlyle to use him more regularly against tough competition.Gardiner slipped one spot in my rankings for the simple reason that James van Riemsdyk is already a top-six forward, even on a talent-laden offensive team like the Flyers.