Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Burgeoning X-Factor: Jake Gardiner

I'm not much of football fan. I'll watch the sports centre highlights and what not, but it's rarely my first choice for TV viewing these days. I understand the basic fundamentals of the sport and generally how the points are accrued, the difference between on field positions, and the varying types of penalties (except for holding, which appears to occur on every play of every game).

In the fall of 2004, while not a fan of football or the NFL, I became an ardent supporter of Kanas City Cheifs wide receiver Dante Hall, commonly known to many as the 'X-Factor'. For uninitiated Dante Hall was the leagues preeminent kick off and punt return specialist between 2003 and 2007.

He was an absolute joy to watch, special teams plays become games within the game, complete spectacles to behold. At any given moment Hall could zig, or zag, or some combination of both, while bounding towards the oppositions end zone.  I was flat out mesmerized, that feeling of aw and anticipation every time he was on the field is something I'll never forget. After watching nearly all 16 Chiefs regular season games that season I can't recall the name of a single player outside of Hall, but I can remember vividly how I felt.

While watching Jake Gardiner and the Maple Leafs in Game five on Friday night I found myself reminiscing about Dante Hall. That feeling of imagination and expectation is something that Gardiner's play conjured up in me during the game. Much like Dante's ability to completely transform the momentum of a football game Gardiner seemed almost omnipresent in Friday's game.

I've tried to watch the 22 year old blueliner closely throughout the series, to better understand  both his rave reviews as an offensive catalyst and his limitations defensively.

First off, his defence. Yes, it could be better. But before we label him an all round poor defender it's important to understand no defenseman is all things in all situations. At times throughout the series Gardiner has displayed splendid composure in the defensive end, maintaining his body position against the significant girth of players like Lucic, Horton, and Thornton. The root of many pundits criticism is that he can be prone to poor decision making. This has manifested itself at times in the form of bad pass, the wrong choice for outlet of the puck, or failing to clear the puck from the defensive zone. The good news, for fans, is that these limitations appear more mental than physical. Decision making is something that can be worked with the coaching staff and through on ice instruction and video review. With only 90 total games of NHL experience it's fair to say that he will continue to learn and the nuances of the pro game and hopefully minimize those errors.

In the offensive zone, Gardiner has shown at both the AHL and NHL level, that he could be something special. Last year, as a rookie with the Maple Leafs he amassed 30 points (7 goals, 23 assists) in 75 games. This year, while playing with the Marlies throughout the lockout, he had 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in 43 games.

Over the past 2 games Gardiner has shown a Neidermyerian (this may not be a word) ability to drive a teams offense from the back end. Judging from his ice time during that time, 24:05 and 27:45, Randy Carlyle has been warming to his style of play.  He's made a number of slick outlet passes from within the Leafs zone to a streaking forward on Boston's side of center. Allowing players like Kessel and Lupul to maintain their momentum and enter the zone with speed.

When carrying the puck himself, Gardiner has proven to be devastatingly elusive to the Bruins. His skating stride and lateral agility forces the opposition to give him space, lest they be beaten to either side. When Jake possess the puck in the Leafs zone you can see how difficult it is for Bruins forwards to press him. He will routinely look up ice, insinuating a pass, only to turn, or pivot, leaving the defender off balance. If you look closely you can see how well Gardiner uses his shoulders to mask his intentions, dipping them to either side to ward off defenders and confuse them as to his intentions.

With the possible exception of Phaneuf the Maple Leafs defensive corps doesn't typically carry the puck through the neutral zone to generate an attack. Choosing to instead dump the puck in along the boards, or pass off to forwards. Gardiner, however, routinely takes the puck into the zone, thus creating odd man rushes and generating possible scoring chances. He has done a great job of finding the right player at the right time with deft passes upon entering the attacking zone.

The challenge for the coaching staff moving forward is to help Gardiner blend his offensive risk taking with his responsibilities as a defenseman. The most successful example for Gardiner to emulate today is Ottawa's Erik Karlsson. Another player with whom fans have taken umbrage in the past for his lack luster defensive play.  Over the last 2 seasons Karlsson has successfully maintained his offensive flair without compromising the teams defensive needs.

I by no means believe that Garinder has become "must see TV" around the NHL. Dante Hall, during his stretch of dominance, was a star across the entire NFL. But what we have witnessed from Jake this post season, that feeling I've gotten when he has the puck, you can't help but wonder what he could become in the future.

The Maple Leafs success or failure on Sunday night will hinge on a number of factors. But the one that most excites me, the one I'll be watching most astutely, it's number 51, Mr. Gardiner.

Go Leafs Go!

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