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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: #3 Jake Gardiner

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A holdover from the last attempt at a rebuild could be a key of the new iteration.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Age is often used as a detriment in the Top 25 Under 25 series.

We've seen numerous examples through our list so far, including several who weren't explicitly pointed out, where an older player's ranking was adversely affected when compared against younger counterparts.

It makes sense. When looking at player development curves we seem to have a specific age range when a player is likely to reach their best combination of physical and mental tools - usually somewhere around the mid 20's with some variance from player to player. When you are trying to put together a list of the organization's best players under the age of 25, this becomes more pronounced.

A 24 year old not yet in the NHL doesn't have much time to prove themselves to our voters, compared to a 20 year old. An 18 year old with impressive junior statistics is easier to project favourably than a 23 year old struggling to meet up those expectations.

Jake Gardiner is a tough person to accurately place in our countdown. 25 years old now, he was made eligible for the countdown by virtue of his birthday being four days before the cutoff, and so of everyone on the countdown he has the most working against him in terms of his age.

His skill, however, is unquestionable. And it's that mix of high-end skill and flashes of more to come that make Gardiner an intriguing player for the Leafs entering a rebuild.

Gardiner's had a rocky tenure in the NHL to date, playing for rigid systems under old-school authoritarian coaches, in an environment that clung to old-school beliefs of how to play the game "the right way", and that has made it difficult to really get a sense of just what Jake Gardiner is as a player.

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HERO charts are a fun tool to visualize just how we should view a player relative to his peers, and over the past three years Jake Gardiner has grown into a very effective player, and one that the Maple Leafs, desperately seeking a solution to their possession woes, should be keeping at all costs. Gardiner produces at levels you would expect from a top pairing defenceman in all possession aspects, though his offensive production is slightly behind.

Now that shouldn't be confused with Gardiner being a perfect player. He makes errors. Having started playing defence relatively late, he's grown into the role but also has occasional moments where he loses coverage that should be fairly simple but he doesn't seem to be aware of his responsibility.

Jake Gardiner's skating and puckhandling is at such a level where he can cover up most mistakes by simply skating his way out of them, but there are times where that leads directly to turnovers and goals against; a criticism lobbed at many other talented puck-carrying defencemen such as Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban and Kris Letang.

Now, that's not to say that Gardiner is on that level of players - if anything he's maybe a level below them but his contract reflects that. And with the Leafs beginning to unravel their messy cap situation and rebuild their organization, having a defencemen on the top pair outperforming his contract can go a long way to stabilizing the Leafs' rebuild.

When Gardiner was brought in during the 2011 season, Leaf fans were hopeful that he'd become the sort of defenceman that the Leafs could build around. While the road there hasn't always been perfect, Gardiner looks ready to cash in on that promise, and while 25 years of age means his development time is much shorter than, say, that of Mitch Marner, part of developing on potential is actually developing potential. That mix of current and future ability is what makes the Top 25 list an interesting look at people's opinions on team-building.

This year, with a coach that has long embraced a puck possession style of play and without the restraints of a coach that has previous notions of what he is and isn't capable of, Gardiner should get an opportunity to blossom into the top-pairing defenceman that the HERO charts and Gardiner's flashes of potential hint at. If he is capable of that, then ranking him ahead of a prospect with eye-popping totals but a long road to development into an NHLer shouldn't be considered an anamoly.

As we saw with Kadri and Marner, Gardiner's votes are spread across the 1-5 range, and actually Gardiner's are about the most evenly distributed, with two 1st place votes and three votes at every other position.

For my personal list, having Gardiner 2nd is a reflection of my belief that potential matters, but so does where you are at that moment. Nylander and Marner received significant consideration for the top of my list, as their potential is undeniable, but ultimately I chose the combination of certainty that Gardiner is, at worst, a top four NHL defenceman and still has room to grow, over the belief that two prospects with strong numbers in the AHL and OHL need more time to develop into what we think they can be.