Jake Gardiner has been freed.
In a move widely expected the past few weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs recalled the 22-year-old defenceman from the minors on Tuesday afternoon, waiting until the eve of their 30th game of the season and a five-game losing streak to pull the trigger.
Gardiner is expected to play for the Leafs on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, making only his third appearance in the NHL this season.
“He’s pretty pumped,” Gardiner’s agent, Ben Hankinson, said as his client made his way back to Toronto from Cleveland, where the Marlies were playing Tuesday night.
“He’s not the saviour,” Leafs general manager Dave Nonis cautioned during an appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan radio. “He’s a very good player that we saw last year that can do a lot of different things for us when he’s on top of his game.
“He’s still a young guy. To expect too much out of him would be unfair to him. But he has been playing very, very well.”
Trying to manage expectations, however, may not be easy.
Gardiner spent the full season with the Leafs and was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team a year ago, pulling off the rare feat of scoring 30 points from the back end in his first full year as a pro.
He then got off to a strong start in the minors during the lockout but suffered a concussion at mid-season and struggled to return to form during a two-game stint with the Leafs under coach Randy Carlyle.
Since being returned to the Marlies in late January, however, Gardiner has 14 points in 21 games in the AHL and overall is 12th in league scoring for defencemen despite missing 18 games.
“His game has improved dramatically in the last 10 days to two weeks,” Nonis said.
To make room for Gardiner, struggling rookie defenceman Korbinian Holzer was returned the Toronto Marlies after Tuesday’s practice, opening a roster spot and a role in the Leafs’ top six.
Carlyle will have a few options for where to play him. A left defenceman, Gardiner spent a lot of time in the AHL alongside Mike Kostka during the lockout and could reprise that role should Kostka draw back into the lineup.
Gardiner played about half of his minutes last season with the since departed Luke Schenn, but also skated alongside Cody Franson or Dion Phaneuf and had more success with both than with Schenn.
Gardiner’s recall comes only a week after there was a firestorm surrounding him last week when, after the latest Leafs loss, Hankinson tweeted “Free Jake Gardiner.”
Coach Randy Carlyle responded the next day by saying the Leafs wouldn’t be pressured “by anybody” in their decision to bring him back up.
“Jake needed seasoning in the AHL and when we feel it’s time for Jake to come back, we’re going to make that decision,” Carlyle said at the time. “And we’re not going to be influenced by anybody.”
“Jake had nothing to do with that,” Nonis said of the tweet. “You don’t hold that against a player and you also don’t recall him because of it. Jake is recalled because he’s played well enough to be an option for us.”
Some small part of the decision may also have been related to the fact that the Leafs’ 2012 first-rounder, Morgan Rielly, is joining the Marlies later this week, giving coach Dallas Eakins another young, offensive-minded defenceman to find minutes for.
Rielly’s junior team finished its season on the weekend, freeing the 19-year-old fifth overall pick up to get into his first pro games after he put up 54 points in 60 WHL games with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
As for Holzer, his struggles with the Leafs were cropping up more and more with each game – he was minus-9 during the losing streak alone – and the demotion hardly came as a surprise.
Despite the fact he recently signed a two-year contract extension, it was clear he wasn’t yet ready for full-time NHL duty.
“We know there are some things he can do to improve and we are going to continue to work with the individual,” Carlyle said. “Any young player I’m sure there are some peaks and valleys. What we’re trying to do is be a calming influence.”