TORONTO – Jake Gardiner is set to rejoin the Leafs on Wednesday night, nearly two months after his initial return from a concussion.
Gardiner played in two NHL games back in late January and didn't look right; his combination of timing, speed, precision all just a hair off. Perhaps overlooked in hockey's ongoing concussion debate is not just the sizeable challenge of getting healthy, but the difficulty of rediscovering pre-injury performance.
"You kind of feel like you're a shell of yourself sometimes," John-Michael Liles told TSN.ca before Wednesday's game against the Lightning. "But at the same time, the organization felt that they needed to get him back down there playing a lot of minutes and one, get that confidence back and two, get that swagger and his lung capacity, his legs, everything that comes with taking six or seven weeks off in the middle of a season."
Liles missed 16 games with a concussion last season. Before the injury, he posted 21 points in 34 games, on pace for a career year. When he returned, something wasn't right. The now-32-year-old totaled a mere six points in the final 32 games, only beginning to feel like himself in the final days of the season.
"There [were] still times in the summer where it was like 'Man, I still just don't feel like myself. I'm still working but it doesn't feel like me on the ice yet'," he recalled. "You look at Crosby, yeah he's had some concussion issues, multiple ones, but at the same time look where he is now compared to where he was last year coming back. You get that extra, whatever half a year, year and all of a sudden it's night and day."
In the 22-year-old Gardiner, Liles sees a defenceman full of promise and one who - despite his high profile in Toronto - is cognizant of the game's order.
"I think he's confident without being cocky which is great," said Liles, who will be paired with Gardiner versus Tampa. "That's what you want in a young guy; you want a young guy to believe that he can contribute to a team, but not sit there and say 'You know what I'm better than you, you've been in this league 10 years, I know more than you'."
An All-Rookie Team defender last year, Gardiner posted 30 points in 75 games, most among first-year players at the position.
On lockout duty with the Marlies this past fall, Gardiner suffered his concussion on Dec. 8, missing the next six-plus weeks before returning to the Leafs in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23.
He played just over 17 minutes that night against the Penguins, 21-plus minutes the following evening against the Islanders.
Never appearing quite right, he was promptly reassigned to the American Hockey League with an expectation that he would sharpen his game up to full-speed.
"He's still young," Liles continued. "Most of the time I think they say at about the 300-400 game mark for a defenceman is when you really start to hit that stride. There are going to be mistakes, there are going to be setbacks and that's natural in the progression, especially of a young defenceman. And I think this year has probably been tough on him just because of the concussion, never easy."
Amid a season-high, five-game winless skid, Gardiner was recalled from the AHL on Wednesday morning.
"We just felt that Jake had played very well here in the last 10 days," Randy Carlyle said, noting the struggles of the since-reassigned Korbinian Holzer. "We knew that we were going to recall Jake at some point and we just felt that this was a decision that was going to be one that would suit our hockey club."