What if Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner didn't have a strong six-game run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? What if he didn't surprise and impress coach Randy Carlyle with his skating and decision making? What if he didn't play well enough to rediscover his confidence heading into the offseason?
What if …
OK, enough of the questions, because Gardiner did have a strong six-game run against the Boston Bruins, strong enough to surprise and impress Carlyle and to feel good about his game again.
"I want to go in there this season and be a contributor, be a difference-maker," Gardiner told NHL.com.
Gardiner thinks he can do it, and the Maple Leafs again have big plans for the 23-year-old defenseman, who after a forgetful, concussion-plagued 2012-13 regular season was at his best once Carlyle inserted him into the lineup for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Carlyle still has to see an improvement in Gardiner's defensive play, but at least now he finally sees him as a defenseman ready for a top-four role with power-play time. It's no longer about the future for Gardiner; his time has come, and Toronto needs him to be good now, even better than he was as a rookie in 2011-12, when he had 30 points in 75 games and made the NHL's All-Rookie team.
"There aren't many people who can move on the ice and move the puck and skate the puck as effectively as he can," Carlyle told NHL.com. "We just think that he is going to be a fixture on our blue line for years to come."
They had the same thought at this time last season, but while the NHL and NHLPA were going through the labor dispute, Gardiner sustained a concussion playing for the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.
It happened in early December and he missed the next six-plus weeks. The Maple Leafs brought him up for two games in late January, but clearly he was not right. He was sent back to the AHL and played in 21 games before being promoted again.
"I thought I was ready to play and I wasn't," Gardiner said. "I came back too soon and I wasn't the same player. It definitely took some time."
Gardiner wasn't himself until late March, when he returned to the Maple Leafs and played in 10 games. He occasionally was erratic.
"Right when I came back I made some poor decisions," Gardiner said. "I feel like I'm a pretty good skater, but I also have to be able to make good decisions or else sometimes it's going to end up in the back of your net. Turnovers were something I was definitely struggling with, but I think I was better toward the end."
He got his chance in the playoffs because an injury to Mike Kostka and the unreliable play of John-Michael Liles forced Carlyle to make changes on the blue line after a 4-1 loss in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins.
Gardiner had five points in six games and played more than 24 minutes in three of them.
"Even when he went back to the American [Hockey League, after his two-game stint with the Maple Leafs in January] it took him a long time to get his game going, but it was a pleasant surprise for him to come into the playoffs and make a contribution and play to the level he's capable of playing," Carlyle said. "We think that is just a maturing step, but he needs to continue to grow as a young player."
Gardiner wants to believe he did that last season, too. Maybe he wasn't able to build on his strong rookie season by playing another full season in the NHL, but he pushed his growing pains and his concussion aches to the side with a solid, albeit short, postseason for the Maple Leafs.
Now he has to play that way for at least 82 games. There could be more if he does.
"Last year was tough," Gardiner said. "Mentally I never knew when I was going to play, but definitely I feel I have the confidence now to go into camp and contribute to the team as a difference-maker. I tried to do that in the playoffs and I'm going to try to carry that over into this year. It's going to be an exciting year. I hope I can play at the same level I was in the playoffs."
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