If there is anyone thrust into the spotlight by the Cody Franson contract hoo-hah, it is Jake Gardiner not Morgan Rielly.
Assuming Franson and the Toronto Maple Leafs are not able to agree on a new contract by the time the NHL season starts Oct. 1, and right now there is no reason to assume they will, then it will be Gardiner, 23, who has to step up to be the No.2, or even No.1 offensive defenceman.
Oh, it’s nice to use the Franson dispute to theorize about whether Rielly will make the team or be sent back to his junior team but even if he stays, the teenager is not about to fill any vacancy left by Franson, the Leafs’ best points-producing defenceman last season.
That job will go to Gardiner, who took a while to round out his game to the satisfaction of head coach Randy Carlyle. This required a detour with the Leafs’ Toronto Marlies farm team last winter after Gardiner had seemingly cemented his place with the Leafs by playing in 75 games in 2011-12.
But once he recovered from a concussion suffered last December while playing for the Marlies during the NHL lockout, Carlyle deemed his defensive game wanting and sent him back to the AHL after the Leafs finished their abbreviated training camp.
Gardiner remained banished until there were just 12 games left in the Leafs’ season but, just as Franson did, he managed to play his way back into Carlyle’s good graces. Gardiner’s coming-out was in the last few games of the Leafs-Boston Bruins playoff series when Carlyle put him in the lineup after sitting him for the first game.
The youngster’s confidence grew as the series went on and he finished with five points in six games. But that does not mean the transition to one of the Leafs’ top two or three defencemen is going smoothly.
Rielly, in fact, has been a better player overall than Gardiner, hence all the stories about him staying with the big club.
However, Carlyle insists Rielly has to prove he can play at least 12 to 15 minutes a game in the NHL and be an impact player, a tall order for a 19-year-old, which indicates he will get a nine-game look at the start of the season and then be sent back to junior by the 10-game limit for teenaged players.
The best that can be said for Gardiner is that he’s had an up-and-down training camp. He was a minus-one in Saturday’s 3-2 pre-season shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres. But he was much better in Sunday’s rematch at the Air Canada Centre, a 5-3 win for the Leafs, albeit still with room for improvement.
Gardiner got his first point of the preseason schedule in the first period when he made a nice rush down the left side, all the way to the Sabres net. True to his uneven play so far, Gardiner then threw the puck in front of the net where there was no teammate to take it. But a lucky bounce saw it go off a Sabres skate and right to Leafs forward Trevor Smith, who tapped it in the open net.
As the game wore on, though, Gardiner’s confidence appeared to grow. He made a nice play, for example, stepping up from the Buffalo blueline to grab the puck and keep it in during a Leafs offensive push. By the end of the second period, Gardiner was a plus-two, led the Leafs in ice-time with just under 16 minutes and then scored his first goal of the preseason in the third period.
But this was lost in the silliness that ended a sleepy affair in the third period. Leafs star Phil Kessel and Sabres fighter John Scott touched off a brawl when Scott went after Kessel, who responded with a two-hander with his stick.
In seconds, every player on the ice had a dance partner and new Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier travelled the length of the ice to fight Sabres counterpart Ryan Miller. And another new Leaf, forward David Clarkson, left the players bench to join the fun, which could mean a 10-game suspension for him to start the regular season. NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan will be sorting this out starting Monday.
So it seems Gardiner is on his way to nailing down a place among the Leafs’ top four defencemen, although this is hardly a surprise. At this point, that group is made up of Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Gardiner and Paul Ranger. If there is a surprise there, it is Ranger, 29, who appears ready to rejoin the NHL after a three-year absence because of personal reasons.