You can forgive Jake Gardiner if he’s a little confused.
In the past two weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie has gone from a top four defenceman, to the press box, to one game in the minors and, finally, back to the NHL.
On Tuesday, he’ll be in the lineup once more, presumably skating in 20-plus minutes on one of the top two pairings against the red-hot Ottawa Senators in a key game for his team.
The Leafs, coach Ron Wilson noted after practice Monday, missed him.
“In us analyzing the games, we want to get pucks out quicker,” Wilson said of the Leafs’ back-to-back losses on the weekend. “And have some more speed on the back end. That’s why we want to put him back in.”
Why Gardiner came out of the lineup at all is a bit of a mystery, especially considering how heavily Wilson had been leaning on the youngster through November and December.
Not expected to make the team out of training camp, the smooth-skating 21-year-old instead bumped out Cody Franson for a roster spot and had his minutes played rise by the week.
Until sitting out the Leafs’ most recent four games, Gardiner had played in 35 of the previous 36, averaging 20 minutes 59 seconds a game in that span to put him ahead of Franson, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek and Keith Aulie on Toronto’s depth chart.
Even now, after being out since a 4-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 5, Gardiner remains fourth in the league in ice time among rookies.
He has spent the time since then working in practice with assistant coach Rob Zettler on being stronger in the corners, using his stick and pinning players to the boards.
What he didn’t receive, however, was an explanation for his recent time on the sidelines.
“They never told me anything,” Gardiner said. “I kind of expected something like this to happen during the year. Being a young guy, it’s part of the deal. It usually happens to people so it’s not hard on my confidence. I’ll just shake it off.”
“We thought he had struggled a little bit,” Wilson explained. “Which [was understandable given]the volume of games, the amount of ice time. Komo was coming back so we wanted to get him in there.”
Komo being Komisarek, who missed more than 20 games with a broken arm and has struggled in going minus-5 in four games since his return.
That’s been part of the problem for Wilson these days. While he has a lot of stay-at-home types on his blueline, none of them has had particularly strong showings this season.
Add in veteran John-Michael Liles missing almost a month with a concussion, and Toronto’s back end has been bigger, slower and prone to some poor decision making (as was evident against the New York Rangers in a 3-0 loss last Saturday) in the past few weeks.
On the season, the Leafs have been outshot by an average of 31-28 – tied for fifth worst in the league – and their goaltending hasn’t been good enough many nights to compensate for that difference.
And that shots on goal total is down from there since Liles went out.
That situation on the blueline is made even more curious as all signs point to general manager Brian Burke moving out a defenceman for size up front, even though the Leafs have been one of the league’s higher scoring teams all season.
Then again, maybe a big, skilled forward can help keep the puck at the other end of the ice?
And maybe moving someone out opens a hole for a player like Gardiner, who may not have produced a ton of offence but skates his way out of trouble far better than most of Toronto’s blueliners.
“That’s what we’ll be looking for from him,” Wilson said.