It’s important to keep in mind that, as a rookie fresh out of college, the extent of Gardiner‘s seasonal workload was 41 games – dispersed in two-game weekend sets with big chunks of rest in between – during his three years of NCAA hockey. The adjustment to the NHL grind has definitely has shown through in recent games.
Thinking back to the start of the season, Gardiner â€“ despite his rookie status â€“ was a poised, two-way defenseman with a high hockey-IQ (he still is). For evidence, look how he has been used by the coaching staff. His consistent pairing with Luke Schenn is plain evidence of the confidence the coaches have in him. Wilson and his staff see him as a defenseman matured beyond his years whose skill, intelligence and decisiveness with the puck complements some of Schenn’s weaker traits.
Last night against Florida was the latest example of Schennâ€™s poor decision-making ability this season. Mid-way through the third, just about right after the second Leafs power-play expired, he proceeded to attempt to rush the puck into the offensive zone. However, when Schenn had got it near the Panthersâ€™ blue-line, he had a decision to make â€“ to either dish a pass to the boards to one of his wingers, or take it in himself by dumping it in or skating. Schenn was indecisive, took too long, and was forced into a costly turnover. These are the little things Schenn has struggled with â€“ decisions like chipping a puck off the glass or manually pushing it out, or dumping the puck into the offensive zone or carrying it in, and these are the situations where Gardiner has often excelled.
Like I said, Gardinerâ€™s hockey-IQ and decisive nature are two of the more refined, valuable skills he possesses in his arsenal. And theyâ€™ve been put into action immensely in an effort to compensate for Schennâ€™s poorer offensive awareness. Early results suggested Gardiner had been excelling; however, the latest diagnosis is suggesting some time off may be best for his future. And despite the coaching staffâ€™s confidence in him, they have noticed his deteriorated defensive stability and poor decision making, and his time on ice has shrunk in recent games. A pinch you’d expect to see on the shinny pond, not an NHL rink, was Gardiner’s latest blunder on the 2-1 Florida goal that killed the momentum after the Leafs fought back to tie the game.
In a stretch that started on November 5th and endedÂ on the 17thÂ of December, Gardiner saw the ice for at least 20 minutes a night in 15 of 18 contests. In those three anomalies in which he didnâ€™t play over 20 minutes of hockey, perhaps only one can be considered truly â€˜reduced ice timeâ€™. In Nashville, he played 15:42 on an evening in which the buds dressed seven defenseman. Next came the only night his TOI was legitimately reduced, an under 19 minute night against Carolina. Following that, his TOI began to escalate again, as he played 19:41 in the 7-1 shellacking the Leafs handed to the Lightning.
His workload reached a maximum when he played a whopping 28:34 against the Dallas Stars the following game after the victory in Tampa Bay. That started another stretch of strong play, but now it’s been five straight games with less than 20 minutes of playing time and a diminishing defensive presence. Gardiner has been slower and making poorly thought-out decisions, an obvious consequence of his vastly increased November-December workload.
It was expected his body would catch up to him at some point, and it evidently has now. I donâ€™t believe itâ€™s time for a demotion (yet). It’s unfortunate in a sense that Gardiner didn’t get an AHL season to adjust to the grind of professional hockey as the competition is a bit easier, and the schedule is set up kind of similar to an NCAA schedule except double the length. Most of the games are played between Thursday and Sunday with chunks of rest in between. But it’s obvious Gardiner can still contribute to the big club in a big way (and he’s needed in Liles‘ absence), and a few games rest – paired with better management of his minutes upon his return – could go a long way in bringing back the assertive, intelligent, and decisive Gardiner we all know and love.
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