Jake Gardiner signed a nice deal with the Leafs this weekend. Five years at roughly four million a season. Not a crazy number for the Leafs to swallow. Gardiner has got some stability contract wise, something NHL players love to have. Now that the deal is done it is time to park it and look at how he can become more.
At times I have such a hard time understanding why fans and media dwell so much on stats. I am talking all stats. The first text I got from a friend in Toronto about Gardiner asked if I think “he can score fifteen goals and thirty assists this season?” I answer back “does it matter if the team doesn’t make the playoffs?”
Gardiner is an extremely talented player. He can skate the puck out of trouble, something that is very hard to do. He has his head up in tight situations which makes it easy for him to find and put the first pass right on the tape. He pushes the play from the back end. This means he jumps into the play to create odd man rushes. It is hard to defend a rush that is a two-on-two and then suddenly turns into a three-on-two.
All good things, good enough to be a second pair defenceman. It shouldn’t be enough for him or the Leafs.
When I think of two top defenceman I played against, I think of Scott Niedermayer and Drew Doughty. These guys were/are great offensive players. Skate like the wind, puck moving ability and offensive instincts second to none. It was fun to play against them. You would never know where they would show up. They were like rovers. The offensive part of the game came to them easily.
The other part of the game, the defensive part, took more time to develop. This did not happen without frustration. There was push back from them to their coaches when they were told to be more selective in their times to jump into the play, or when to take chances with the puck. But slowly, game after game, season after season, they became elite defencemen.
Gardiner is not an elite d-man — very few are. But most top teams have elite d-men. The Leafs need him to fill out his game and become that elite player on the back end. He has to commit to playing both ends of the rink. Yes, at times he will have to sacrifice offensive stats to win a game, but winning is more important.
The Oilers have their very own Jake Gardiner. His name is Justin Schultz: Highly skilled, puck moving and still working on completing his game.
He and the Oilers are working on a new deal. Gardiner is a pretty good comparison to Schultz in many ways. Maybe the deal comes back looking something like Gardiner’s for Schultz. Five-year deal? I could live with it, but I am leaning towards a two-year deal for Schultz. Maybe even a one-year deal.
Once the deal is signed the Oilers need Schultz to have a stronger year on the back end in his own zone. Last year he played a lot of minutes for the Oilers. Even though it was too much for this young guy, that’s the way it went. In a perfect world he is on your second or third pairing. If he brings the rest of his game up I think this guy can be a solid player.
I watch the games as closely as anyone and the battle level of individual players is what I watch. It separates the players I want on my team and the ones that I don’t. The playoffs are always a great example. The teams that thrive are the ones who as a whole never stop — all over the ice — trying to keep or get the puck back.
One issue I have with Schultz is his very relaxed attitude in his own zone. Off a point shot he is often in the right position standing beside his man. He doesn’t battle with the guy to push him out of the shooting lane or to take his stick away. This is a simple correction but one that takes a lot of attention to make happen nightly.
Drew Doughty or Duncan Keith are very aggressive in these areas. It makes such a difference in their own zone. Bringing this part of the game to a higher level made them much better players and lifted both their teams to the ultimate heights.
Once the deal gets done for Schultz, park it and don’t look at it. I would spend that energy praying that in addition to his offensive skill he becomes a much harder and more detailed defender for the Oilers. Just being a going point producer won’t be enough to push the Oilers up the standings.
So to my buddy who asked me if Gardiner can get fifteen goals and thirty assists: Does this answer your question?