A few years ago, Mike Babcock called Ville Leino the best player that he's ever sent back to the minors. I'm starting to think that before long, Ron Wilson might be able to say the same of Jake Gardiner.
At 21 years old, the slick skating defender has been electric in the pre-season thus far.
Gardiner was acquired from Anaheim late last season along with Joffrey Lupul in exchange for Francois Beauchemin. At the time, many pundits felt that Gardiner's Wisconsin teammate Justin Schultz had surpassed Gardiner on Anaheim's depth chart. This, coupled with the emergence of Cam Fowler, made Gardiner expendable.
Since then, Gardiner has completely dominated the rookie tournament, particularly against Chicago as he skated laps around the Blackhawks prospects. Couple this with a heck of a game against Ottawa's exhibition lineup and it's easy to get excited about his future with the Leafs.
His two assists against Ottawa were impressive but far more impressive in my opinion was the way he used his skating. On several occasions, Gardiner jumped into the play at precisely the right time, he recovered well after making some minor errors, and he broke up the cycle well in the defensive zone. His four shots are a reflection of how he chose his spots and jumped into the play at the appropriate time.
Despite a great start to the pre-season, there's little hope of Gardiner making the team out of camp. It has seemed like a forgone conclusion that Schenn, Phaneuf, Liles, Franson, Gunnarsson, Aulie and Komisarek will start the year as the Leafs' seven-man group.
While the time Gardiner will likely spend in the AHL should be good for his development, his pre-season thus far will also be a warm blanket for Brian Burke, should the GM feel he needs to move a defenseman from his roster in order to improve the forward corps.
It's been a long time since the Leafs have had to send a talented young player who has performed well to the AHL -- just another sign that this roster is finally getting where it needs to be.
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