As a former NHL player and longtime head coach of the University of Wisconsin Badgers, Mike Eaves knows a thing or two about what it takes for a college player to go from NHL prospect to NHL player.
So let's permit Eaves to provide the scouting report on the newest Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, defenceman Jake Gardiner.
"Jake is having a very good season for us," Eaves said. "He's our third leading point getter on the team and he plays defence, so that's worth noting. He's an excellent skater. He sees the ice well in terms of being able to skate the puck and make the first pass to get a team on its way. He's our shooter on our first power-play unit. What Jake needs most now is to get stronger. He's a good size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) but the challenge for him will be to see what he can do when he's playing against men in the NHL. If he makes it (as an NHLer), I think he'll be a top four defenceman because of his skating ability and his first pass."
IF he makes it? Leaf fans may have choked on that line, but Eaves said lots of talented, young prospects have to prove they can handle the biggest hurdle of the pro game.
"It's about playing with men, dealing with the strength and physical play and all that goes with the NHL game," Eaves said. "That's going to be the hurdle he has to overcome. If he does, his speed and puck-moving ability will serve him very well at the next level."
Eaves said he doesn't project Gardiner as a first-unit power play quarterback or shooter in the NHL, but added he could easily see him as a second power play unit shooter.
If you talk to amateur scouts, they rave about Gardiner's speed but raise questions about his hockey sense or ability to read plays.
Eaves said there's a distinction there.
"Jake does a tremendous job of breaking the puck out of his own end and seeing open ice and open men and getting himself or the puck to the right spot," Eaves said. "He reads that extremely well. When he gets to the offensive blueline with the puck, that's maybe where the scouts are talking about reading the play and he's not as strong at that as he is coming out of his own end."
Which is to suggest even though he's a point-producing defenceman at the college level, there's no guarantee he'll duplicate that to any great degree in the pro game.
NHL scouts believe it's probably in Gardiner's best interests to turn pro at the end of this college season because he needs to be challenged to play at the next level and he's not going to get those challenges in college hockey. The scouts do not think, generally speaking, he's ready to step into the NHL as a fulltime player and will need a year of apprenticeship in the American Hockey League to get used to the more physical, pro game against bigger, stronger players.
In general terms, Gardiner is not considered a blue-chip or elite or can't miss NHL prospect but he is by no means a longshot either. A "solid" or "decent" prospect, according to a number of scouts surveyed by TSN, but still with a lot to prove.