Jake Gardiner took some bumps in practice to no ill effect, which was the best news the Toronto Maple Leafs have had for a while.
The 22-year-old defenceman also packed his bag for the Leafs’ trip to Pittsburgh, where they will play Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Wednesday night. However, no one would say exactly when he is expected to return from a concussion he suffered Dec. 8 in an American Hockey League game.
“When he says he’s ready we’re going to find a spot for him in the lineup,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said after Tuesday’s practice.
This may sound like it’s up to Gardiner, so all he has to do to suit up against Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company is give the word, but it’s more complicated than that. He still has to be cleared to play by the team doctors and Carlyle said he did not expect to receive a report until later Wednesday afternoon following the team’s arrival in Pittsburgh.
At this point, it appears unlikely Carlyle would throw Gardiner in for his first NHL game this season against the powerful Penguins. A more likely debut is Thursday back at the Air Canada Centre against the New York Islanders or Saturday in New York against the Rangers.
Gardiner himself did not want to even speculate about his chances of getting on the team’s charter flight to Pittsburgh.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said about the question of playing and then was asked about going to Pittsburgh. “I’m also not sure about that. I brought my bag.”
Gardiner’s puck handling and ability to make the first pass out of the defensive zone are badly needed by a team that has not been able to score an even-strength goal in two games since the season started. His skill on the power play will also help, as the unit went 1-for-7, including a failure on a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage, in Monday’s 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
Carlyle spent most of Tuesday’s practice working on the power play and the sputtering offence. He put centre Nazem Kadri, who has two power-play goals in two games, between wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the first unit and then replaced left winger Clarke MacArthur on the second unit with James van Riemsdyk beside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
“We’re trying to get Kadri more ice time,” Carlyle said.