Another day, another struggling player in the spotlight.
Maybe it’s because the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a losing outfit for so long, but the media focus often seems to be on whoever is a healthy scratch or benched or in the coach’s doghouse and not on, say, Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf, both of whom played well in a win the night before.
And Friday’s contestant was Jake Gardiner.
Gardiner was an unexpected healthy scratch for Thursday’s big 6-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, as John-Michael Liles returned to the lineup off a high ankle sprain and played pretty well on a third pairing with Mike Kostka.
Gardiner has played in only five games since his recall on March 19 and has been making both great plays offensively and suspect ones defensively, something you might expect for a 22-year-old getting into his first regular NHL action in nearly a year.
His most glaring error was against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, as Shawn Matthias blew past him on the tying goal late.
So, after taking a night off, Gardiner spent some extra time working in the corner with assistant coach Scott Gordon and James van Riemsdyk at Friday’s practice, trying to bring a add a little more physicality or tenacity to his defensive game to appease coach Randy Carlyle.
It’s similar to the one-on-one instruction that the Leafs were giving struggling rookie Korbinian Holzer prior to when he was sent down, even if, statistically speaking, there have been some obvious differences between the two .
“He’s got to be better defensively,” Carlyle said after practice. “It’s as simple as that. We’ve asked him and he’s very well aware of the expectations. The games mean too much. Right now, we’re not in a development stage. We have to win hockey games.
“That’s the cruel part of sports, but it’s our job to provide our team and our organization with the lineup that we think is going to give us the best chance for success. If that means some players are going to get the short straw, I’m sorry but that’s the way it is in pro sports.
Carlyle wouldn’t point to the Matthias goal as the sole reason for the scratch, instead saying it was a “combination” of things that contributed to his decision.
“It’s the other things that are happening,” he said. “The inability to defend strong against Boston. It’s a missed pass that routinely should be made. It’s the confidence level of the player, too. It’s all those things that make a combination.”
Gardiner is generally a man of few words and that was definitely the case on Friday after practice, as the giant scrum assembled around him lasted only an uncomfortable minute or two.
“We’re winning hockey games right now,” Gardiner said. “It’s part of the job; you’re going to sit out every once in a while and I’m still a young guy. So I’m not too hung up on it.
“[They’ve told me] to be more consistent and better defensively. Just work on things like that.”
Gardiner told TSN on Thursday morning that the focus of what Carlyle wanted was on the physical side of the game, but the coach clarified that saying it’s more defensive positioning and the like that he needs to bring.
Gardiner is listed as one of the lightest blueliners in the league right now at just 184 pounds so he may need to add in the strength department as well.
The difference between Holzer and Gardiner, however, is that Gardiner cannot be sent down without requiring waivers , as his 80th NHL game was against Boston last Saturday.
In other words, he will be in the NHL to stay the rest of the way, whether he’s in the lineup or trying to learn a few new things from Carlyle and Co. in practice.
That, more than anything, is likely why the Leafs waited so long to recall him from the minors, as they didn’t want to get into a situation where they weren’t comfortable using him in games and he was sitting on the sidelines.