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Green light for Gardiner in return to Toronto

by Neil Acharya

TORONTO -- "Jake Gardiner is free," exclaimed Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek as he walked by the throng of reporters assembled in front of Jake Gardiner's dressing room stall.

Gardiner smirked a little during that moment but was otherwise serious as he answered question after question regarding his return to the Maple Leafs lineup when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday at Air Canada Centre.

Gardiner has been under the spotlight in Toronto ever since his agent, Ben Hankinson, tweeted the words, "#FreeJakeGardiner" after a Maple Leafs loss to the Winnipeg Jets over one week ago.

After playing in two games with Toronto, Gardiner was sent to the American Hockey League on Jan. 25, and remained there since. One season prior, he was a regular in the Maple Leafs' lineup, with 30 points in 75 games and averaging 21:35 in ice-time as a rookie.

Jake Gardiner
Jake Gardiner
Defense - TOR
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 4 | +/-: -1
"Right now I'm kind of getting a second chance, so I have to make sure I play well and help get this team a win," Gardiner said. "I feel like I have definitely gotten better each game [in the AHL]. I still think I have a long way to go to be where I want to be. Whether it's every game or every practice, I want to keep getting better."

Gardiner was in Cleveland with the Marlies when he was notified of the recall Tuesday. The Minnetonka, Minn., native had 10 goals and 21 assists in 43 games in the AHL this season.

He will be partnered with veteran John-Michael Liles, who plays a similar style of game.

"He is a good puck mover and I like to think that I am too," Gardiner said. "If someone makes a mistake -- hopefully doesn't happen -- but if someone does, I think we are both good enough skaters where we can get back and recover."

Liles, who recently returned to the lineup after an extended absence as a healthy scratch, said he and Gardiner are on the same page regarding their assignments.

"The biggest thing is making sure you are reading off one another, making sure you are not both going to the same spot," Liles said. "As long as we are doing that and communicating, I think we will be fine."

Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle is counting on Gardiner to bring his up-tempo game to the table. Toronto is 0-3-2 in its past five games.

"We think Jake can play his skating game, his puck-moving ability, his joining the rush -- all of those things." Carlyle said "Any young player coming in, we want to put them in situations where they can play to their strengths, be it on the power play, be it on the 4-on-4, puck recovery mode. Jake has got a special skill set in doing those things."

Former Maple Leafs and current Lightning defenseman Keith Aulie was a teammate with Gardiner last season. He experienced similar bumps in the road, sometimes being seen as a stalwart and at other times relegated to the sidelines.

"It's a constant roller coaster in a hockey player's career and you just have to deal with it," Aulie said.

"People make a big deal about going up and down [between the AHL and NHL]. It can look good, it can look bad, but at the same time, it's just hockey. Roster decisions have to be made and people much smarter than us make those decisions."

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