TORONTO – Just above the right eye of Jake Gardiner
were the remains of about 10 stitches, the definitions of a shiner beginning to emerge on his 22-year-old face.
“What's the one thing I told him last night?” John-Michael Liles
chirped as he strolled by. “What was the thing I told you right before we went out?”
“I forget,” Gardiner replied. “I don't know.”
“I said Bernier hits hard, heads up,” Liles beaked back. “First shift, Bernier!”
“It was in one ear out the other,” Gardiner responded menacingly to the veteran. “I was like ‘Ah, whatever!'”
Disregarding the wisdom from Liles on the bench moments earlier, Gardiner, on just his second shift of the game, attempted a long breakout feed from the left wall of the defensive zone. Just as the puck left his tape, he was firmly planted into the boards by Devils winger Steve Bernier
, the gash above his eye the stinging reprimand of his mistake. Jake Gardiner
is still learning. The process of development for the Leafs second-year defender is ongoing, a project that will require an equal combination of patience and education on the part of the player and organization.
A member of the league's all-rookie team a year ago, Gardiner has endured a rocky second season.
There was the lockout in the fall that halted his NHL progression and deemed he start the year with the Marlies. There was the concussion he suffered in early December. There was the haze that followed in his brief, rushed return to the Leafs. There was the near two-month reassignment to the Marlies for refinement purposes, highlighted by the musings of his agent on Twitter. And most recently, there were the frank (and ongoing) demands and requirements of Randy Carlyle, who sat him for three consecutive games as a healthy scratch, noting earlier in the week that his team was not in a "development stage".
“It's been really weird,” Gardiner said of his sophomore season, while in conversation with TSN.ca on a quiet Sunday afternoon. “Last year went pretty smoothly and this year has been the concussion, the lockout, yeah it's been kind of a whirlwind, but it's good to face adversity sometimes.
“I think I'll be better in the next couple years because of it.”
It is unquestionably for that reason that Carlyle has demanded more from Gardiner in recent days, weeks and months. While sensing the obvious natural talents, Carlyle is focused on rounding out the game of his youthful defender, ensuring that he become more than just a race-horse capable of joining the odd rush.
“I think I have to be better defensively with coach Carlyle,” Gardiner said of the contrast between Carlyle and his first coach in the NHL, Ron Wilson. “It seems like he's a little more detailed than Wilson was in that sense. Last year it seemed like I could, not get away with anything, but just [be] more offensive-minded than defensive.”
That emphasis and balance has shifted.
“They want me to join the rush,” Gardiner explained, “[but now] I'm just thinking defence first all the time, make sure I don't get scored on out there. But anytime there's a rush I'm going to try and join it if I can.”
On the morning of March 28, hours before he was scratched against the Hurricanes, Gardiner was shown precisely the adjustments required by Carlyle himself. A former Norris Trophy winner himself, the coach demonstrated the proper use of positioning and a good stick in defending, helpful tools to compensate for Gardiner's relatively thin frame (a slight 184 pounds). “Yeah that and just being ready for anything that comes my way,” Gardiner said when questioned on the importance of positioning. “Don't be sleeping back there at all, always be alert.”
It was two nights before that chat on the ice with Carlyle that Shawn Matthias
had danced around him for the game-tying goal in an eventual Leafs win over Flordia. A night before that in Boston, he was bodied him off the puck by Dougie Hamilton
in behind the Toronto goal, the impending feed from Hamilton springing a game-tying goal from Patrice Bergeron
in an eventual shootout loss to the Bruins.
These were the obvious errors piled on top of others that proved more subtle. In his return to the lineup against the Devils on Saturday, Gardiner made a concise effort to heighten his awareness and aggressiveness while defending in his own zone, logging around 16 minutes.
“I was just focused on making good plays defensively and being strong defensively so that he can trust me out there,” said Gardiner, referencing Carlyle. “And then my offence will come. Just need to start with defence every time.”
Gardiner played his first NHL game this year on January 23, the third game of the Leafs regular season. Off for six weeks with the dreaded concussion, many things appeared off with Gardiner that night in Pittsburgh and the night that followed against the Islanders. Pass attempts off the skates, off the mark, out of place, his usual burst missing. The evaluation was clear. He needed further refinement and was sent back to the Marlies to get it, the haze of his concussion lingering long after the head injury itself had disappeared.
Liles suffered a concussion in late December last year and recalled not feeling like himself until two-plus months after his on-ice return, the required timing just off for mysterious reasons. “I don't know if it was that long,” said Gardiner, “but I did feel a little weird even when I was playing after the concussion. It's a hard injury. You never really know I guess. You know what normal is before and then you come back and you think you're normal, but you might not be.
“It's hard to explain,” he continued. “It's like almost, not a fog, but it's slower decisions I guess.”
And for a player of Gardiner's talents, that is by no means a good thing and surely helps to explain his early troubles following the injury.
Gardiner believes he'll be better off for the string of adversity he's faced this season, a more complete, well-adjusted player because of the difficulties he's endured.
One thing is near certain. The next time he sees Bernier coming, he'll remember the words of Liles, “Bernier hits hard, heads up”.