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Gardiner Is Leafs Future

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

In 1974 music critic named Jon Landau wrote “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

Well, I have seen the Toronto Maple Leafs future and its name is Jake Gardiner.

When Gardiner arrived in training camp and showed himself one of the team’s best defencemen, I said he would make the club and predicted that ascension would set off a wave of ramifications.

Old schoolers laughed at the idea of a 21-year-old college player who looked good but not overpowering in 10 games with the Marlies finding a place in a defence pond stocked to overflowing. One television analyst, long famous for his sunny demeanour, told me to get my head out of my ass without bothering to divert his gaze from his coffee and the pre-game warm-up.

Full disclosure.  I tend to rhapsodize when I am impressed with a new player. I am not a glass half full kind of guy.

I am a glass overflowing kind of guy.

Despite my sunny predictions, Anton Stralman was last seen trying to walk on to the Devils roster. Viktor Stalberg, a player with great speed but questionable navigation skills, is back with the Blackhawks after a knee injury.

Despite my heady predictions, he will someday manage the trick of being a 20-goal player of no great distinction.

But Jake Gardiner trails only Dion Phaneuf as the Leafs' best defenceman. Right now. The beautifully understated Carl Gunnarsson and John-Michael Liles are next. Everyone else is more or less in a tie for fifth and sixth.

Forget, for a second Gardiner’s skating, the thing that makes all things possible. Tonight against Boston, watch the way he wedges out opposition forwards.

Now notice how effective he is with his stick.

One of Gardiner’s greatest gifts is his reach, not because he has freakishly long arms -- he is an honest six-foot-one -- but because his prodigious hand skills would allow him to reach around an opposition player and redo the knot on the guy’s drawstring.

Look at his vision; the way he drives toward a spot in the opposition end, beats a defender then finds a teammate in an area a Leaf attacker is only then reaching.

Now go back to the skating. Sometimes it looks like everyone else is wearing boots on the pond.

Cannily tutored by Dion Phaneuf, Gardiner owns a cast-iron mental architecture. He approaches the game like hungry bear at a company picnic.

Gardiner shook off sitting out two games despite a much better training camp than Cody Franson, the player who took his place. He played 25 minutes in the Leafs 4-3 shootout win over Winnipeg, Wednesday, and finished plus one. He can, and will, be used in all situations. He follows bad shifts with good ones. He plays a leisurely, solo game of keepaway when his team needs a line change.

Yes, like any defenceman young or old, he can be forced into bad decisions but those rarely involve a pass into the middle of the ice. And yes, he surrenders odd-man rushes, but his ferocious speed largely negates what is a necessary by-product of his game.

And yes, he may never score more than 10 goals because of a shot that is usually well-directed but not overpowering.

But it is because of Jake Gardiner that the Leafs didn’t have to settle for a poor camp from Keith Aulie. And while there seems no doubt Cody Franson can and will be a good NHL defenceman, Gardiner is going to be a great one.

Either in the long term or the short, GM Brian Burke is going to have to sort this out. Counting on injuries to alleviate a glut of material isn’t a good way to do business.

Burke can either package whoever for a trade to bring in whoever (I’ll let the trade forums sort that out). This summer he can take a pass on John-Michael Liles’s free agency and direct that $4.2 million -- thanks -- toward the unrestricted Mikhail Grabovski or restricted free agent Nikolai Kulemin. As mentioned, Liles has been very good but Gardiner’s arrival means the Leafs are well set for offensively oriented defencemen.

Before you ask, the only potential unrestricted free agent forward of any consequence next summer is Zach Parise and the Devils have long been optimistic about their chances of signing him before he hits the market.

But however it shakes out, the Leafs find themselves with two prime assets, the rejuvenated Joffrey Lupul and Gardiner, traded to Anaheim for Francois Beauchemin.

Don’t feel too smug about that. Ducks GM Bob Murray made that deal with the full knowledge that Cam Fowler would arrive on their roster and be an impact defenceman in exactly the same fashion as Gardiner has managed with the Leafs.

But as it did in Anaheim, something has to happen in Toronto. The landscape has changed. The future is being recognized.

Briefly: Jonas Gustavsson gets the start tonight in Boston. No pressure. It’s the Leafs second game in as many nights. The Stanley Cup champs are at home looking to rebound from a 1-3 start on their ice. Though it might be wise to give James Reimer his sixth straight start, Gustavsson would then be that much rustier for Saturday’s game in Montreal…Twenty-one-year-old Joe Colborne has three goals and seven points in four games with the Marlies. His desire and hand-skills are at an NHL level. But his confidence to be able to stick was undermined in the pre-season by the slowly-developing skating skills that come with being six-foot-five…In five games, Luke Schenn’s ice time has gone from 22 minutes to 12. He is 21 years old. He may have time to rebound. The Leafs have called up Nazem Kadri after last night’s injury to Colby Armstrong.

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