Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Non-Dilemma

jake gardiner leafs marlies
The Leafs have themselves a problem. It's a nice problem, admittedly, but a problem nonetheless. They have too many defencemen. More importantly, one of those defencemen, Jake Gardiner, not seen as a serious contender to make the team before camp, is playing better than most of the players above him on the depth chart.

The Leafs must get Jake Gardiner in their line-up. He's so talented that his inclusion alone will propel the Leafs out of their playoffless hell. Brian Burke needs to do it by any means necessary: trade, demotion, kidnapping Mike Komisarek.

Or they should ignore the irrational cries of their fan-base and do what's best for their prospects and, more importantly, their organization.

The Maple Leafs have put themselves in a position where they can avoid this exact scenario that Leafs Nation is dreaming of. There is enough depth throughout the line-up that they shouldn't be forced to play any of their young prospects.

There are seven, possibly eight, defencemen ahead of Jake Gardiner on the depth chart. I agree he has impressed this pre-season, but he hasn't been so out-of-this-world good to necessitate trading or demoting someone ahead of him.

It's also possible that Gardiner is receiving all this praise not necessarily because he's played well enough to deserve it, but because Leaf fans have not seen a player like him in a long time. They are praising his style of play more than they are praising him specifically. Gardiner is a smooth skater willing to insert himself right into the offensive play, but is fast enough to get back defensively. He is shifty and adds a certain flair to a backend best characterized as truculent (or slow, whatever). He's like a young Tomas Kaberle (before Kaberle was beaten down by trade rumours), but with the speed burst held down. Oh, and he'll shoot the puck.

This all sounds tremendously exciting. But please, please, please have some patience.

Why force something? It's not like sending Gardiner back to the AHL is going to stunt his development. In fact, playing major minutes in all situations for the Marlies is probably better developmentally than playing protected third pairing minutes in the NHL. Sure the competition isn't as great in the AHL, but it will certainly help work out some of the defensive kinks in his game (which are there) and will make him a better overall player.

The Leafs are in a perfect situation for Gardiner to make the team next season. John-Michael Liles is in the final year of his contract and can be replaced next season by a more mature and, hopefully, better version of the Gardiner we're watching now in training camp.

The Leafs can also explore trade options over the course of the season, rather than try to make something happen over a week when they don't have any real leverage. Liles might even be an attractive option for a team at the trade deadline. If so, the Leafs can call up Gardiner to take his place.

It's also likely that the team will suffer some injuries. If that happens Gardiner will be one of the first call-ups. But until then, he can learn the pro game in the AHL. Let's not forget, Gardiner is only 21 and has played all of 10 games in the NHL. He could use some time in the AHL.

The Leafs have the same dilemma with both Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin. A dilemma that has become even less of an issue now that Matthew Lombardi has the potential to fully recover from his concussion by the start of the season.

Both Kadri and Frattin are in competition for a spot as the Leafs' third line winger. Both have played well during training camp, but like Gardiner, neither have played so well that the Leafs simply can't afford to leave them off the NHL squad.

Frattin has a lone professional game under his belt and would be well served to spend a season in the AHL. The same is true for Kadri, who played slightly over half a season with the Marlies last year, in addition to a handful of games in the NHL.

Looking at this from a long-term perspective, it's better for both of them to play in all situations in the AHL, rather than play in a third-line role in the NHL.

Just because there is excitement surrounding these three players doesn't mean the Leafs should rush any of them if they aren't completely ready. The Leafs have a long history of rushing their prospects to their overall detriment. They would be wise to avoid that thinking with these three players.

The Detroit Red Wings are a model organization for handling their prospects in this cautious manner. They seemingly never call up a player before they are NHL-ready. Sometimes this takes years. But almost all their prospects fit in seamlessly when they arrive with the big club. The Leafs could learn something for the Wings, they've only been the most successful team of the past two decades.

A few weeks of success against minor league line-ups during the preseason sure is a compelling reason to make a promotion which drastically re-orders your line-up. Too bad the years worth of failed prospects suggest there's a better course of action.


Matt McFarland said...

Great post Matty! I agree with your sentiments, but there are some other things to consider. Gardiner would have a 10 game window before the club has to alter his contract. Keep him up for opening night and see what happens and then send him down. You're right, we haven't seen a defenseman like this in a long time and that is exactly the reason he should stay for a little while. Maybe he will rub off on some of the more flat-footed guys.

Kadri should go down and have his freakin' ego checked again. For all the talk of "maturity" he still thinks he is special enough to attempt dangles around NHL D-men and not be scolded when it results in a turnover that leads to a perfect marriage of puck and twine.

My biggest concern is that Scrivens has been the best goalie in camp. What the hell!?

Ted said...

I'm not against him staying up, but I think Gardiner's going to the minors, no question. Burke loves keeping great young players in the minors (Getzlaf, Perry) and letting them dominate the AHL rather than just participate in the NHL.

Your point about JML being gone next year and opening a spot for Gardiner seems like a good logical progression at this point, but the future is anything but certain.

There is of course the reverse argument, like Matt McFarland said, that keeping him up will maybe kick some of the older guys in the ass. Could be his best value overall.

Anthony said...

This is a nice piece, but I think we should wait out the remaining three games in preseason before we put the final stamp on either of these guys.

Preseason is about to get an NHL feel to it so that's when we'll really find out what these two are actually all about.

Bo Dangles said...

I agree with Matt McFarland - keep him up for that 10 game window to give him more of a taste for the NHL. If he still continues to amaze (ppg, plus player), then CONSIDER keeping him up. I also think Kadri still needs to learn that this isn't NHL 12 - you can't just try the dangles every goddamn time.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I thought the 10 game window only applied to junior players? My understanding is that the team can play someone for 10 games and still send them back to junior without burning a year of their entry level deal.

Funny enough, I think Gardiner is the exact type of player Komisarek needs to play well. He was good in Montreal when he could just pass the puck to Markov and let him get it out of the zone. Gardiner would be that type of player for Komi, and Komi could stay at home and stick to his skills.

Unfortunately, keeping Gardiner just to make life easy for the immovable Mike Komisarek is bad for both Aulie and Gunarsson, two players with longer track records than Gardiner, and, in my opinion, more right to be on the roster.

Anthony said...

There is no ten game window. He's under contract, he's playing professional hockey no matter what this year. The question is whether it's with the Marlies or Leafs.

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