His skating, puck-carrying ability and offensive skills are often remarkable, but Jake Gardiner’s defensive mistakes at times have been glaring.
So it won’t be surprising if coach Randy Carlyle decides to sit his 22-year-old blue chip defenceman for an extended stretch of games as the Leafs drive toward securing their first playoff spot in eight seasons.
“He’s got to be better defensively. It’s as simple as that,” Carlyle said on Friday after practice at the MasterCard Centre before the team flew to Ottawa for Saturday’s game against the Senators. “He’s very well aware of the expectations. The games mean too much.
“Right now we’re not in a development stage. We have to win hockey games. That’s the cruel part of sports but it’s our job to provide our team and our organization with the lineup that we think is going to give us the best chance for success. If that means some players get the short straw, I’m sorry but that’s the way it is in pro sports.”
Should GM Dave Nonis swing a deal for an experienced defenceman before Thursday’s trade deadline, Gardiner could have an even tougher time getting back into the lineup.
Right now, veteran John-Michael Liles is playing his best hockey of the season. If another defenceman enters the equation, then rookie Mike Kostka likely will also be watching the bulk of the games at least until a playoff spot is in hand.
Toronto has a 2-1 edge this season in the Battle of Ontario and Round 4 should have a playofflike atmosphere at Scotiabank Place. A Leaf victory would pull them into a fifth-place tie with the Senators in the East.
As dominating as Gardiner was in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, he hasn’t found his A game since being recalled. In fact, other than perhaps his first game back on March 9, he’s had some big-time defensive struggles. Only his superb skating has prevented more opposition chances.
His defensive play was dearly lacking against Boston and Florida before being made a healthy scratch for Thursday’s Carolina game.
But Carlyle insisted his decision to bench Gardiner wasn’t made because of one or two miscues.
“We don’t make a decision on whether a player gets beat on one play. It’s the other things. If it’s an inability to defend strong against Boston or a missed pass that routinely should be made and the confidence level of a player as well,” Carlyle said. “We made the decision that we felt with Liles coming back and the play of Kostka, they warranted a second opportunity.”