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Top 25 Under 25 - #2 Jake Gardiner

Toronto's best young defenceman reclaims the title of 'runner-up', while preparing for a push as a full-time Top 4 defender in the NHL.

Eigtheen months ago, when we compiled our first Top 25 under 25 series, Jake Gardiner was given the 2nd overall position, the best of the many prospects and maybe NHLers in the Leafs' employ, behind burgeoning sniper Phil Kessel.

Last summer, the addition of forward James van Riemsdyk pushed Gardiner back down one spot, to 3rd. Once again, Gardiner was ahead of all but the two Leafs top six forwards under the age of 25.

In Gardiner's history on the Top 25, as with his history in the NHL, the only thing standing in the way of Gardiner and greatness has been NHL players (though in the NHL's case, 'NHL players' isn't always the descriptive word).

At this level of the countdown, the smalles knock can eliminate somebody from consideration. As with Nazem Kadri, the drawback against Gardiner is simply a lack of experience at the top level. After outclassing the AHL during the first half of the lockout, Gardiner seemed poised to jump to the NHL when it returned and to never look back. But a concussion and a slow start to NHL activity threw things into disarray, and the result was Gardiner spent much of the season going back and forth between trying to work his way into the NHL lineup, and showing the flashes that made him a first round pick and the Leafs most dynamic young puck-moving defenceman since Tomas Kaberle burst onto the scene.

With young players trying to earn a spot with the big club, you can only send them back to learn so many times before one of two things happens. Either the player simply can't make the jump to the next level (which happens often; some players simply rise to a level where they perform exceptionally well at the AHL level, but can't handle the NHL), or the team packs it in before the player realizes his potential.

In the majority of those 'AAAA' player scenarios, the player's inability to keep up with the NHl game (due to below average skating) is what undoes their chance at the big leagues. However, that shouldn't be the issue with Gardiner; his skating, even in university, was world-class. In fact, I've often found Gardiner looks reckless at the AHL level precisely because he is moving and thinking so much faster than anybody else.

LIke Kadri, the criticisms of Gardiner's game that purport to explain his absence from a full-time NHL duty are a miniscule part of his game, and also part of the risk/reward element that Gardiner provides. When you have a defenceman like Gardiner, who can gather the puck and suddenly your side is on an odd-man rush, you overlook the imperfections that he may make a mist-timed pinch, or give the puck away.

Jake Gardiner possesses an NHL ready set of skills, and has proven himself capable of playing in limited opportunities to date. Gardiner failing to find a permanent spot in the Leafs lineup this season shouldbe considered a failing on the part of the Leafs management and coaching staff.

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EDITION 2 - 3/41
EDITION 1 - 2/45

The panel was neatly split on where to place Gardiner in this edition of the Top 25, with an equal distribution of first, second and third-place votes.

Jake Gardiner was the best skater on the ice for Toronto in the playoffs. He could be a top-pairing defender as soon as this season if given the proper opportunity.

A revelation in the playoffs. He was everything we want and everything we need, and I can't write about our third best player under 25 without wondering if our coach will play him, or if our GM will trade him for peanuts. These are the 2013 Maple Leafs.