As the Toronto Maple Leafs look to end the club’s recent slump, a healthy Jake Gardiner could serve as a much needed difference-maker.
April 25, 2018.
The Toronto Maple Leafs blow a 4-3 lead over the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the club’s first-round playoff series. The Bruins score four unanswered goals — many of which come at the expense of defender Jake Gardiner, who shall be left to grapple with the implications of the worst performance of his professional career.
TD Arena is buzzing. That critical question — What the heck went wrong? — envelops Leafs Nation. After the matchup, Gardiner takes the high road, claiming responsibility for his errors as he holds back tears.
A summer comes and goes. John Tavares fulfills a childhood dream and signs one of the most head-turning deals of all-time. The Toronto blogosphere widely declares the Buds serious Stanley Cup contenders. And in spite of some trying moments — the William Nylander contract fiasco, ongoing fears of offer sheets and an underlying lack of certainty surrounding the future of the club’s current depth, to name a few — the 2018-19 campaign is, by and large, a bright one. Sunny days, indeed, for an organization that found itself at the bottom of the NHL’s standings just a few seasons ago.
Jan. 14, 2019.
An all-too-familiar feeling — one that was supposed to remain a thing of the past — takes control of Scotiabank Arena. A 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche renders the team vulnerable to expansive criticism. Once again, Gardiner bears the brunt of condemnation, as a host of mistakes — chief among them being a turnover that directly results in a poorly-defended shorthanded goal from Carl Soderberg — serve as the central avenue through which the jaws of defeat grow alarmingly wide. To make matters worse, a chorus of boos envelop the rink whenever No. 51 touches the puck.
After the game, teammates rise in Gardiner’s support. “The guy does everything for this team,” Mitch Marner proclaims. “People don’t give him enough credit ever. He’s a guy that does a lot of plays for us out there, he makes a lot of stuff happen.” Adds Morgan Rielly, “He comes to work every day like a pro, works hard. His teammates love him, he’s the most popular guy in this room.”
Still, the sentiment among many is one of disappointment. For some in the midst of social media’s darker corners, that attitude is of the highly charged, revolting variety — the specifics of which should not be repeated.
March 16, 2019.
The Leafs are now 11 games away from the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their last five matchups — a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, a 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, a 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks and a 7-6 win over the Philadelphia Flyers — have been nothing short of substandard. A contest against the last-placed Ottawa Senators, then, should be a sure victory, and a much needed one at that.
Nevertheless, the Buds are at their worst. To the surprise of the hockey world, the Leafs are handed their most shocking beating of the season, in part due to the circumstances surrounding the Senators’ unexpected triumph and in part because of the bombshell that is the game’s final score. Ottawa 6, Toronto 2.
Only this time, Leafs Nation is without its favorite scapegoat. This time, the onus of responsibility not just can, but must be centered on the structural limitations that have plagued the club all along — its collective effort (or lack thereof).
Gardiner is many things. A 52-point player. A high-risk, high-reward defender. A champion of the stretch pass. Strong in the offensive zone. Middle of the pack in the defensive zone. Polarizing; supporters and adversaries abound. Due for a raise.
Above all, he’s one of the Leafs’ best defensemen — and one who the team has desperately missed as of late. If any doubts of this reality persist, one need only consult the organization’s record since Gardiner’s Feb. 25 absence for categorical truths. In 13 games, the club has won just six times in total. And the manner in which they’ve lost has resulted in a widespread outcry for the books. In those matchups, opponents have tallied 47 goals. The Leafs? 43.
He may not be the defender you favor. Heck, he’s far from a complete player, for lack of a better term. But the last 13 contests have proven, more than anything, that this team needs Gardiner.
Some thought that a period without No. 51 in the lineup would provide demonstrably better results. It hasn’t. Others felt that an experiment of this nature would allow less costly mistakes to be ushered forth in Toronto’s end. It has, in fact, cost the club wins.
News that No. 51 has resumed skating ought to be met with the utmost degree of acclamation if the Leafs are to seriously contend for Lord Stanley’s trophy. He could be the ultimate difference-maker, after all.