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Gardiner Opening Eyes Around Hockey

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Remember those colouring books where if you connected the lines a jumble of numbers became a flower pot or a circus elephant?

In the NHL, most of the numbers are obscured because of the speed of the game, a bounce off the boards, an unexpected move from a veteran or the zeal of a rookie who has been just called up.

There are two kinds of great players. Some see the flowerpot. Others just ride on a heightened instinct. They feel it.

When the Oilers ran a young Wayne Gretzky through a battery of tests, they found that other than commendable stamina, he had no particular athletic gift.  What he did have was a visual recognition of patterns that was off the charts. Gretzky could detail every element of a play the way a preacher recites his Bible favourite passage. He saw the game. Same with Dominik Hasek who refined his spatial instincts through countless hours of chess.

To ask Maurice Richard to describe a goal was to waste his time and yours. He felt it. By the time he could describe that feeling, new ones had washed his recall away the way high tide dispenses with a sand castle.

Jake Gardiner, the Leafs astonishingly-mature 21-year-old defenceman feels it. It’s not that he doesn’t try to speak about his gift. He does. It’s just that what he does is so instinctive, asking him to describe what he does is like asking a fish about the water.

Playing hockey, not going to hockey but playing is as natural to Gardiner as breathing. He started skating at two and until he was 17 he spent his winters on Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis St-Paul. On good nights, when the surface froze before the first snowfall, his boundaries seemed limitless.

His dad John Gardiner walled off a huge hockey rink on the lake and kept it free of snow. He ran a buried cable from his house to light standards on the shores of the lake.

“That’s where I developed all my skills, my stick-handling and vision too,” Gardiner said.

Countless tiny moments of takeaway, keepaway, 10 on 10 and tag formed his game. Watch Gardiner rag the puck as the Leafs make a change or explode up ice from his goal line. His game is so electric because it’s modified pond hockey.

“My generation of players learned a lot on the open rink,” said Rob Zettler, the Leafs’ coach in charge of defencemen.

“It doesn’t happen a lot now because kids play in so much structure.  I just wish they were able to walk out the front door and grab their buddies and say ‘let’s go play some hockey’ without Mom and Dad and their coach watching over them.”

But even if Gardiner provides little insight on what he does, a host of NHL people can fill in the gaps. We asked nine people what makes Jake Gardiner one of the NHL’s next big things. Here is what they said.

Aaron Ward, TSN analyst
“He totally reminds me of Scott Niedermayer. His skating is so effortless. When he moves the puck he has his head up. That’s his glaring skill. It isn’t the speed so much as the control he has and the level of confidence he exhibits. It was the same with Paul Coffey.

“I know you can’t compare Jake to those players but it’s what I see when he has the puck between the goal line and the neutral zone that reminds you of those guys.”

Dallas Eakins, head coach, Toronto Marlies
“The biggest thing I noticed about him is that he was a very, very confident kid. He wasn’t a guy who just wanted to dip his big toe into professional hockey and then go on carefully from there. Right from the first puck drop he wanted into the play.

“He does all the little things very well for such a young player. He angles players off the puck well. He positions himself well between the opponent and the puck. He has a great stick. Put those things together with that great speed and you have the potential to have a real special player.”

Bob McGill, Leafs TV analyst
“What Jake has is something you can’t teach, or at least something that takes a long time to learn. I’ll give you an example. When the puck is along the wall he knows exactly when to chip it past the forward and get it out. That’s just instinct.

“I think when he gets to the offensive blue line he’s not confident enough yet to make things happen. But defensively, he sees the game very well. He’s done a fantastic job of going from college to a short time in the American League to the NHL without missing a beat.

“He’s got a bit of Phil Housley because of the way he skates but I don’t know if he has that kind of offence in him.”

Rob Zettler, assistant coach (defencemen) Toronto Maple Leafs
“Jake’s speed is obvious.  He’s able to skate the puck out of trouble and get to places quickly, both offensively and defensively.

“But in my mind the biggest thing is how he goes back for the puck and protects it. He gets his body between the puck and the opponent and he uses the opponent’s momentum to kind of propel himself and keep going.  The player pushes him and he just takes off.

“He’s not a big guy but he’s sneaky strong, very strong on his skates. He never gets knocked down. His hockey strength is way above average.

“Jake has had to work on some of the structure of the game. Sometimes you have to be predictable on power play situations. Your teammates have to know where you are.

“A lot of time he has the puck early and he doesn’t have to work on the defensive side.   Offensively he needs to work on getting his shot through and seeing the holes. He can be a very good defenceman for a long time but he still has to put in the work.”

Ron Wilson, head coach, Toronto Maple Leafs
“I’m playing him like he has played 1,000 games in the league, 27, 28 minutes some nights.  It’s nice to have that when guys get banged up. We use Dion Phaneuf a lot and there are some nights where Dion is nursing a little injury and he can’t play those kind of minutes or when we are playing three games in four nights. The scary part is Jake doesn’t get tired. The more we play him, the less he sweats.

“We were in Dallas and we were playing four D the last five minutes. John-Michael Liles came off with 1:20 left and Jake was going on and he said ‘stay the whole damn 1:20. I’m dead'. Jake was working on ridiculous minutes, 27 at that point. Our guys know that he’s the real deal. It’s just enjoyable watching that.”

Darryl Sittler, Hockey Hall of Famer
“He reminds me a little bit of Niedermayer and Coffey. He’s so fluid and he has his head up all the time. Borje (Salming) was a great skater who was in that class. As a forward it’s so much fun to have a guy like that because you can dump it off to them and they will find you when you get open.”

Jonas Gustavsson, Goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs
“He plays with a lot of confidence for such a young guy. That’s the big thing. He knows he’s good. He doesn’t hesitate to go out and do what he thinks is the best move in that situation. I’m impressed.

He doesn’t throw the puck away. That’s what leads to the opponent’s scoring chances. He covers the puck even if he is tired or we don’t have the puck for a long time. That’s something young guys don’t usually have.”

Carl Gunnarsson, Defenceman, Toronto Maple Leafs

“He doesn’t give a damn about anything and that’s great. He stays calm in the worst storm.  That’s one of his best assets.“

Brian Burke, General Manager, Toronto Maple Leafs

“Jake hasn’t earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Scott Niedermayer. It’s way too early for that.”

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