"He's just one of those players with that extra gear that he can just turn it on and jump into holes and jump into the play. He anticipates the situation real well. I don't find him to be the kind of player who just goes all the time -- he seems to have figured that out pretty well."
-- David McNab
Though Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Jake Gardiner
, a Minneapolis native, could better be called a mountain climber. The speed with which Gardiner has scaled the learning curve while moving from forward to defense has been nothing short of astonishing.
The shift was done prior to 2007-08, his senior season at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School. It went so well -- he led his team with 20 goals and 48 points -- that the Anaheim Ducks
selected him with the No. 17 pick of the 2008 Entry Draft.
As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, he continued to grow into the position in 2008-09. He finished second among WCHA rookie defensemen and third on the Badgers with 21 points, earning a spot on the league's All-Rookie Team.
"He is one of those guys, when he gets the puck behind the net in his own zone and gets going with it, he can move the puck and join the play as well anyone at his level," David McNab, Anaheim senior vice president of hockey operations, told NHL.com. "He's just one of those players with that extra gear that he can just turn it on and jump into holes and jump into the play. He anticipates the situation real well. I don't find him to be the kind of player who just goes all the time -- he seems to have figured that out pretty well.
"He made a big step last year at Wisconsin. The WCHA is an older league, a difficult league. For an 18-year-old to play as well as he did shows us a lot. ... Anyone that can skate as well as he can and has the hands and puck skills and offensive creativity, those are difficult players to find."
Dean Blais, who will coach the U.S. team at the 2010 World Junior Championship, understands McNab's position. After a week watching Gardiner in practices and games at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August, he came away very impressed. In three exhibition games against Russia, Gardiner showed great speed, skill and puckhandling ability.
"We weren't really sure he could play at that level," Blais told NHL.com. "He's playing defense at Wisconsin and he's improved his defensive game to where he was more reliable and wasn't running all over the ice. He's really improved the last two years.
"He's got an excellent chance of making the team."
Gardiner was listed at 6-foot and 173 pounds when he was drafted, but after one college season, he's grown to 6-2 and 187. That physical growth is helping his growth into his new position.
"Last year I really didn't have a clue what I was doing out there," Gardiner told NHL.com. "It was one of my first times playing defense, so it was pretty interesting. My defensive game has definitely improved and I feel a lot more comfortable."
Gardiner said it wasn't until midway through last season that he finally felt like a college hockey player, rather than someone trying to play hockey at the NCAA level.
"In high school I could do whatever I wanted, it wasn't that much of a challenge for me," Gardiner said. "When I got to Wisconsin, I figured out fast I couldn't really skate the puck out that much, I had to pass to my teammates a little bit more, use my teammates. Guys are a lot stronger and bigger there, and the speed is a lot faster.
"I started on the third unit for defensive pairings. I played with (Jamie) McBain toward the end of the year, and that was a big help, he's a great player. Definitely halfway through the year I thought I started to settle in."
Gardiner will play at least one more season at Wisconsin, where he'll be able to continue to learn the intricacies of playing defense.
"Hopefully next year I'll get some power-play time, keep improving all my skills, defense and offense. And hopefully it leads me the right way." - Jake Gardiner
"This summer I've been lifting a lot, gaining some weight," he said. "Hopefully next year I'll get some power-play time, keep improving all my skills, defense and offense. And hopefully it leads me the right way."
The right way would be west, toward Anaheim. The Ducks certainly have liked what they've seen so far, but there's still more they need to see before believing Gardiner is NHL-ready.
"You just want guys to contribute and get better," McNab said. "Whenever you have a player you're always hoping that from one year to the next, when you see him play, he's made big strides, gotten bigger and stronger and more confident, make less mistakes, and for Jake, he's a far more offensive force game in and game out, shift in and shift out. Jake needs to be a guy that puts up points and score some goals. You hope when you go watch him right now he's a real offensive threat."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com