Prior to preseason preparation, and training camp battles, management was very clear on how the available spots on the roster are going to be filled. Whoever earns the job, regardless of age, previous status or NHL experience, with a good camp will have the job. Jobs will not be given, they will be earned.
During this period of preparation, Jake Gardinerâ€™s star shone so bright that even true spokesman of AHL player development couldnâ€™t negate the impact his ability had on the transition game and overall attacking play of our back end.
Looking back to the rookie tournament to the final preseason game, Gardiner quickly went from being hopeful to being someone that makes so much difference in a given hockey game that you have trouble imagining the team without him. His skating caused every NHL team we faced (including the newly built Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings) major problems. His vision and puck distribution probably tops that of every other Leafs defenseman. He has poise beyond his years and remains calm under pressure which helps our PP when entering the zone.
With some players, you can see it right off the bat. We could see it with Jeff Skinner back when he played against SKA St. Petersburg in a preseason game. We can see it with Jake Gardiner. This isn’t hype, itâ€™s clear as day. When a skillset differentiates so much from other players even a person that hasnâ€™t been watching hockey for that long sees it. Yes, itâ€™s clear as day.
“If he’s one of your better defensemen, it’s an easy decision,” said Wilson. “We start training camp, we have our meetings and talk to the team and we tell people ‘If you earn a spot on the team, we’ll find or blow or hole in the lineup to get you in there’ and there’s a few people who’ve done that.”
Iâ€™m glad that Brian Burke, Ron Wilson and the rest of Leafs management stayed true to their word. Once again, the organization showed class and honesty which surely gives players a more confident feeling heading into the new season, but it also keeps them on their toes, since the competition level is extremely high.
There was lots of talk about who loses out in this situation. To be honest, I donâ€™t think anyone does. Competition is good. With all his skill, Gardiner isnâ€™t a lock to stick with the roster. He has to keep earning it. Mike Komisarek adds another dimension of toughness to the back end, but he has yet to prove effective. More than a few snags with him coming off the roster, so letâ€™s move on. JM Liles is the player who should be a stopgap for Gardiner, and guess what, both of them are playing. Given our need for better puck transition, thatâ€™s a good call. Keith Aulie seems like the likely candidate, only he probably makes Phaneuf a better defensive player. And Cody Franson â€“ based on his camp, and his booming slapshot, he also adds another dimension to the PP, plus isnâ€™t bad defensively. Carl Gunnarsson seemed like a plus minus hero of old.
For me, Brian Burkeâ€™s words speak about that which is most important:
“We think we made some changes that have made our team dramatically better, we made some changes to the coaching staff, we made some changes on the blue line and we made some changes up front. And we think those things will put us in the position where we want to be, which is in competition for a playoff spot.”
But, for argument sake, help me solve this one, given the depth of our defensive corps, who loses out here? Is there a trade coming?