He’s considered the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top prospect on defence, a smooth-skating, puck-moving blueliner who could potentially fill in for the departed Tomas Kaberle on the team’s back end.
But what’s really remarkable about Jake Gardiner’s story is that up until four years ago, he wasn’t a defenceman at all.
He was a forward.
At 17, however, one of the college coaches recruiting him out of the Minnesota high school system – Troy Jutting from Minnesota State – told Gardiner he’d have more success on defence.
He tried the switch and suddenly went from a middling forward with “one or two” schools interested to a budding offensive defenceman with plenty of NCAA options.
After only one year playing on the blueline as a high school senior, Gardiner was taken 17th overall in the first round of the 2008 NHL draft.
Gardiner called Jutting soon after to thank him for the advice.
Three years later, he calls the switch “the best decision of my life” and doubts he’d be nearly this close to making an NHL lineup if still playing as a forward.
“I’d probably be in college somewhere,” he said. “I mean, I was considered a top line guy [as a forward] but I don’t think I could play that role in the NHL or even college. You need to be able to score a lot of goals; I was scoring a few goals and a few assists.”
As well as the move worked out, the late position switch could also help explain why Gardiner’s taken a little bit longer to reach this point than some of those drafted around him like John Carlson and Michael Del Zotto.
He admits he needed time to adjust at the University of Wisconsin, using three years there to learn the finer points of the position and slowly work his way up the depth chart.
“Right away it was tough,” he said. “It took me probably a year to get the game down.”
Now 21 and with a pro contract, Gardiner has already turned heads at the Leafs rookie tournament in Oshawa this weekend, scoring twice in a 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks rookies on Saturday, including once on a dazzling end-to-end rush.
His teammates and coaches marvel at how well he’s shifted to a new position.
“I can’t even imagine – I’ve been a forward my whole life and I don’t think I could ever make that transition,” said Tyler Brenner, Gardiner’s roommate during a late-season stint with the Toronto Marlies last season. “But he can play defence, and he’s got great offensive skill. I think maybe it benefited him – he’s got everything going on for him back there.”
“For Jake, it’s a totally different game,” added Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, who’s in charge of the young Leafs at the event. “On defence, you’re almost like a quarterback, watching the game, reading the game. I think playing forward for a long time has obviously enhanced his skating … he has NHL skating ability.”
That ability was what first caught the eye of Brian Burke three years ago, when the then-Anaheim Ducks GM made Gardiner their first-round pick.
Burke left for the Leafs job a few months later but kept his eye on Gardiner, eventually acquiring the youngster and Joffrey Lupul for François Beauchemin in February.
“He has played three years under an excellent coach at a top program,” Burke said of Gardiner’s time with Wisconsin’s Mike Eaves. “Not many true freshman, 18 years old, play right away in college hockey. Jake did. He is coming along nicely.”
Just how good he will be at the pro level, however, remains to be seen, and spending all year in the AHL this season isn’t out of the question.
Eakins even pointed out on Sunday that he’s not certain whether Gardiner’s point-a-game season in the NCAA will necessarily translate into big point totals at the next level.
“I’m not sure he’s an offensive defenceman,” Eakins said. “I think he’s going to be a really solid defenceman that can skate well.
“We’re still trying to feel through with Jake what he’s going to be. But when you can move like that, you’re way ahead of the game.”