PITTSBURGH – Jake Gardiner is set to return to the Leafs lineup.
The 22-year-old has been activated for Wednesday night's game at the Consol Energy Center, and is set to make his season debut in the Penguins' home opener. Gardiner has been out of action since December 8 with a concussion, suffering the head injury during a lockout stint with the Marlies.
"He has totally given us the 100 per cent that he feels that he's 100 per cent and that he can compete," Randy Carlyle said Wednesday morning, before a decision had been reached. "The difference is we have to make a decision if the number of practices that we've had [is satisfactory for him], the off-ice conditioning, all that factors into it."
Carlyle planned to speak with Gardiner, team doctors and management before coming to a decision.
"We know he's feeling better," added the Leafs coach on Tuesday. "We want to make sure we're not putting him in any situation that he can't have success in. That's always the mandate with players coming back off injuries. When you deal with a concussion or those types of head injuries, you want to make sure you're extra careful."
To make room for Gardiner on the 23-man active roster, the club assigned Korbinian Holzer to the Toronto Marlies.
First among all rookie defencemen in both points and minutes last season, Gardiner is a race-horse who will certainly bolster a jumbled back-end. "We could use the offensive and puck-carrying ability," noted Carlyle. "He's a special player."
Looking to establish options on the question-riddled blue-line, Carlyle split the pair of Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf to begin the season. Gardiner's return, however, might allow him to reprise that combination. During his 22-game outing with the Marlies, Gardiner teamed effectively with Mike Kostka, who has found success early with the Leafs on a top pair with Dion Phaneuf. Carlyle could opt to reconnect Gardiner and Kostka, doing the same additionally with Phaneuf and Gunnarsson. John-Michael Liles could then steady the third pairing alongside one of Cody Franson, Mike Komisarek or Mark Fraser.