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Mirtle: Why the Leafs should #FreeJakeGardiner

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner is congratulated by teammates after scoring on the Edmonton Oilers during first period NHL action in Toronto on Monday February 6, 2012

The Canadian Press

Oh the firestorm that follows a Toronto Maple Leafs losing streak.

And this isn't even much of a streak either. Yet.

Yes, the Leafs lost (and lost badly) to the Jets in Winnipeg on Tuesday night, a game that ranks up with their worst performances of the year and against a team that's right on their heels.

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And, after the game, player agent Ben Hankinson tweeted out #FreeJakeGardiner.

As in Leafs prospect Jake Gardiner, the young defenceman who had 30 points in 40 games with the Marlies right now and was on the NHL's all-rookie team a year ago.

In fairness to the Leafs management, there was a strong case to have Gardiner down in the AHL originally. He was trying to recover from a concussion, obviously wasn't up to speed and so was given more seasoning in the minors.

On the flip side, however, it's clear the big club could use his talents.

Gardiner played the fourth most minutes of anyone on the Leafs last season, behind only Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson on the blueline, and, for the most part, acquitted himself quite well – especially for a rookie who wasn't expected to make the team.

He had 30 points and averaged more than 21 minutes a night, playing on both special teams regularly and often on a pairing with the since departed Luke Schenn. (Gardiner's best play was with Cody Franson, however.)

Most importantly, Gardiner has considerable speed and the ability to move the puck well out of the Leafs end, something that's certainly been an issue this season. The Leafs are one of the weakest puck possession teams in the league, and someone like Korbinian Holzer playing top pairing minutes is part of the reason why.

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That said, calling up Gardiner isn't a cure for everything that ails this team, and he's probably best suited for a third-pairing role to start off. (There's also the issue of waivers. Once Gardiner plays three more NHL games, he would require them to be sent back down – one of the main reasons the Leafs have been cautious with his recall.)

In order to open a spot for him, coach Randy Carlyle would also have to relent and return Phaneuf to the right side – where he's spent most of his career – giving the Leafs better depth on right defence and allowing Gardiner to play with either Phaneuf, Mike Kostka or Franson.

Gunnarsson – Phaneuf

Fraser – Franson

Gardiner – Kostka

(There's also John-Michael Liles to consider, too, and he's also a left sider who could be worked in as soon as Thursday's game against the Penguins. No easy task after a long layoff.)

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The Leafs have to be careful here, though. Recalling Gardiner in the midst of a losing streak could put undue pressure on him, but Toronto also has a tenuous hold on a playoff spot and is in danger of beginning a bad slide.

Should they lose their next two games, they can fall to ninth in the East as soon as Saturday night, and more widespread panic would set in.

And good luck quietly recalling Gardiner then.

This whole situation brought out the media in full force on Wednesday, as many attended both the Marlies pregame skate in the morning (which is rare) and the Leafs practice later in the day.

Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, as he tends to be, was diplomatic about the whole thing, offering more praise for Gardiner and saying the firestorm would be a good lesson for a young player in a crazy market.

"From his agent's point of view, I'm not sure how well thought it was," Eakins said. "Jake's got a game today. He and I have a plan in place for how we're trying to get him back to the NHL… He's caught in a roster thing right now.

"His game is very good. I've challenged him and our team needs to be the best player on the ice every night, and on most nights, he's done that."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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