This summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs stepped up to demonstrate their faith in Jake Gardiner's abilities. Now it's up to the smooth-skating defenseman to deliver on the five-year, $20.5 million contract he signed with the team on July 29.
Rather than accept a short-term bridge deal, the 24-year-old Minnesota native elected to commit long term to Toronto through what should prove to be his prime years.
"I am happy to be a Leaf for a really long time," Gardiner told the Toronto Star. "That was a big part of it, commitment. I thought having five years and the money was awesome. The security for me was good. It just shows the Leafs have a lot of faith in me."
The Maple Leafs have also invested a fair bit of money in Gardiner, along with that faith. So they will be looking for him to pick up where he left off at the end of last season, when he had five goals and 14 points in his final 18 games.
A member of the NHL's All-Rookie Team in 2011-12, when he had seven goals and 23 assists for 30 points in 75 games, Gardiner had four assists in 12 games the following season, most of which he spent in the American Hockey League. In 43 games with the AHL's Toronto Marlies in 2012-13, he had 10 goals and 31 points.
Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has pushed Gardiner, who was drafted 17th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2008 NHL Draft, to try to get the most out of his substantial potential. That relationship has seen its share of strain, so it was telling when new assistant coach Steve Spott reached out to Gardiner by phone to introduce himself.
"It is huge to know where you're at, and where you stand with the team," Gardiner told the Star. "It is never easy when you don't know where you stand or if you're going to be in and out of the lineup. It is nice to have those kind of coaches that you can go to and talk to and find things out."
Gardiner's best asset is his puck-moving abilities, which Carlyle should look to count on consistently.
"We're just scratching the surface with Jake," Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis told the Toronto Sun. "The exciting part for us is the year he had coming out of his entry-level deal. His minutes were up, his plus-minus was respectable ... there are a lot of positive ticks beside his name."