|Minnetonka High School defenseman Jake Gardiner converted from being a forward in order
to take advantage of his many skills on the ice.
"It's a pretty funny story,'' Minnetonka coach Brian Urick told NHL.com. "We had Jake playing forward and he was very effective. As he gained more confidence, we began playing him more on the point on the power play in the umbrella and he began to excel.''
But not until the Minnetonka coaching staff received an enlightening tip from Minnesota State University coach Troy Jutting -- this season's Western Collegiate Hockey Association Coach of the Year -- did the transformation from forward to full-time defenseman take shape.
"First of all, Jake has become the player he is because it was very important to him and he really worked at it,'' Jutting said. "He's an extremely dedicated kid who handles the puck extremely well. Let's face it -- forwards are a dime a dozen, but defensemen are much harder to come by, in my opinion. When I watched him play, I saw all the tools necessary for him to become a solid defenseman. I thought the Minnetonka coaching staff did a fabulous job working with Jake in helping him learn the position. He's a big, lanky kid who moves his feet extremely well and has a bright future.''
Gardiner remembers the conversation he had with Jutting while visiting Minnesota State on a recruiting trip.
"He suggested I make the move to defense and while it was difficult learning the defensive zone, I just loved how much more of the ice I could see and cover,'' Gardiner said. "My dad put me in skates when I was 2 and I began playing hockey when I was 4 and I never wanted to come off the ice. As a defenseman, I had an opportunity to stay on the ice even more.''
According to Urick, Gardiner was a staple in the lineup, playing 65 percent of every game.
In the summer leading up to his senior year, Gardiner perfected his defensive game as a member of the Minnesota Advanced 17 Hockey Team and, in July, was chosen to be part of the USA Under-18 Select Team in the Junior World tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
"I knew after switching over and playing defense last summer, that it was the right move,'' Gardiner recalled.
At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Gardiner is regarded as an exceptional puck-moving defenseman and quickly shot up NHL Central Scouting's rankings for North American skaters. In fact, Gardiner enters the NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa this June as a strong first-round candidate and the top-rated Minnesotan available on the board.
When Gardiner returned for his senior year at Minnetonka in his new defensive role, he opened many eyes, including those of his coach.
"When he returned for his senior year, I was stunned at how well he picked up the position. It was like he'd been playing the blue line his whole life,'' Urick said. "I think what impressed me most was how well he performed in one-on-one situations without the puck. Playing without the puck as a defender is pretty difficult, but he was so smooth. His reach is long, so that poke check became such a valuable part of his game.''
Gardiner, who possesses great vision, passing, speed and playmaking ability, will use the poke check "whenever the situation calls for it.''
Unlike many school-boy athletes, Gardiner also has an uncanny knack for making others around him better -- a true testament to his leadership and work ethic. Urick marveled at Gardiner's ability to create space in one stride.
coach Troy Jutting
Gardiner was also a Mr. Hockey finalist, given to the outstanding senior high school player in Minnesota, after finishing with 48 points and 20 goals. He also was a plus-41, collected 15 power-play points, including four goals, and led the team with 149 shots on goal.
"Jake is the fastest high school player I've seen in my seven years as a coach with the program (included six as assistant),'' said Urick, himself a 1995 All-State player at Minnetonka. "He led more by example and was the hardest-working kid in practice every day. He has the makeup to be a very successful professional someday. This high school has never seen a graduate stick in the NHL, but Jake has that potential.''
Speed is something Gardiner has worked at since he first laced on the blades.
"I love to skate and was fortunate my dad made a pond-hockey rink every year in our backyard (in Deephaven, Minn.),'' Gardiner said. "My brother (Max) and I have skated almost every day, every winter, since I can remember. I never went to any schools for my skating, but did go to a few summer hockey camps as a kid.''
Gardiner, whose favorite NHL players include forward Joe Sakic and defenseman Paul Coffey, is looking forward to the draft and beginning his collegiate hockey career at the University of Wisconsin.
"If my name is called on draft day, I know I'll be excited, surprised and pumped, but, after that, I'll just have to wait and see,'' Gardiner said. "I chose Wisconsin because I like their intensity and their style of coaching. It's also an amazing academic school.''
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com