Toronto Maple Leafs
defenseman Jake Gardiner
is sure glad Minnesota State University coach Troy Jutting provided the advice he needed prior to his senior year at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota.
"He suggested I make the move to defense, and while it was difficult learning the defensive zone, I just loved how much more of the ice I could see and cover," Gardiner told NHL.com. "My dad put me in skates when I was 2 and I began playing hockey when I was 4 and I never wanted to come off the ice. As a defenseman, I had an opportunity to stay on the ice even more."
Gardiner would strike for career highs in goals (20) and points (48) as a high school senior and was a top-10 finalist for Minnesota's prestigious Mr. Hockey Award despite moving from forward to defense during the 2007-08 season. He was drafted in the first round (No. 17) of the 2008 Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks
and would ultimately perfect the art of playing the blue line at the University of Wisconsin under the tutelage of assistant coach Mark Osiecki
"Switching from forward to defense was the best advice, hockey wise, I've had," Gardiner said. "Many people don't think Minnesota high school hockey is a great league, but I think if you choose that path it can work out and it's proven."
In February 2011, Gardiner was traded by the Ducks to the Toronto in a three-player deal that included some draft picks. One month later, Leafs general manager Brian Burke
signed the 21-year-old Gardiner to a three-year entry-level contract.
"My dad put me in skates when I was 2 and I began playing hockey when I was 4 and I never wanted to come off the ice. As a defenseman, I had an opportunity to stay on the ice even more." -- Jake Gardiner
"As a kid, you always dream of playing in the NHL and it became a reality when I signed and actually made the team … it was cool," Gardiner said. "My dad (John) was more excited than I was, so it was nice to see him and how excited he was."
Gardiner has been learning plenty in his rookie season, particularly playing alongside Mike Komisarek
and, more recently, Luke Schenn
"Both of those guys are so good defensively," he said. "They shut down guys and they're helping me realize that defense comes first. Obviously, I know that, but it's good to have a guy in practice showing you what to do right. It's easy to play defense when you have those two guys back there. If I jump into the play, I know they're going to be there for me."
As an alternate captain with the Badgers during the 2010-11 campaign, Gardiner was named to the All-WCHA Second Team. Among the nation's defensemen, he ranked second in points (41), second in assists (31) and third in goals (10). He would produce points in 26 of Wisconsin's 41 games last season.
"Going into Wisconsin, I knew the coaching staff was superior and knew I needed to work on my defensive game, which is why I chose Wisconsin in the first place," Gardiner said. "They helped me develop into an all-around defenseman and just a guy who can skate the puck up.
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"I think, overall, college is a great experience," he continued. "I got my education (majoring in consumer affairs) and I'll go back in the summers and finish it up. You gain lifelong friends outside of hockey; sometimes you get caught up hanging out with the guys all the time and that can be good and bad. You need to get away from the game a little bit and have some time off, and it's nice to make friends outside of hockey and experience some college things you don't get to do if you play junior hockey."
Gardiner admits the one thing that has really impressed him is the intelligence of every player in the NHL. It's something that forces him to improve on his game.
"The biggest thing I've noticed is how much smarter the players are, and it's not even so much being as strong as everyone else, because I'm not as strong as everyone else," he said. "Players know where to be at the right times, and it helps when you pass to an area where you know your guy is going to be and not always having to look at him. That's definitely the biggest part, in addition to the speed and strength."
Gardiner admits how impressed he was with 39-year-old Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr
during his two-goal night against the Leafs in Philadelphia on Oct. 24.
"You couldn't even push him off the puck," Gardiner said. "Those 6-foot-2 plus forwards who can handle the puck are tough … you have to be careful of their speed, strength and their skill. It's definitely a lot tougher from that respect."
Slowly but surely, however, Gardiner is finding his niche along the blue line.
"I'm always watching guys on television or playing with them, so players on defense are different," he said. "I consider myself a small guy (6-1, 173) and I'll talk to teammate John-Michael Liles
(5-10, 185) a lot, and he says it's not about how big you are but how you use your body and positioning. Using your stick is your biggest weapon. I'm never going to throw those big hits, at least not know, but I'm learning stuff from Dion (Phaneuf), who is a good all-around defenseman."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale