Lockout a blessing in disguise for Gardiner
For many NHL players, the AHL is a critical stepping stone on their path to success. The AHL teaches players how to be a professional, play against grown men, and how to deal with the daily grind
of being a professional hockey player. Most NHL players have spent at least some time in the AHL, but every year there are a few exceptional prospects that make the jump from junior hockey straight to the NHL.
Jake Gardiner was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks along with Joffrey Lupul for Francois Beachemin on February 9th, 2011. He finished his season with the University of Wisconsin Badgers and then joined the Toronto Marlies for their final 10 games. The 2011/2012 campaign was supposed to be his first full season in the AHL, but Gardiner was one of those exceptional prospects that took the Leafs brass by surprise and with his smooth skating and great first pass, forced himself into the everyday starting line up. In his first full year in the NHL, Gardiner played in 75 games putting up 7 goals and 23 assists for a total of 30 points. Not too bad for a rookie blue liner! As soon as the Leafs season finished, Gardiner went back to the Marlies where he played an integral part in their Calder cup run contributing 11 points in 17 games, but more importantly, he gained some valuable playoff experience, and has given Leaf fans a reason to look forward to this upcoming season (as soon as the lockout ends of course).
It hasn’t taken long for the soft spoken kid from Minnesota to be heralded as the next saviour for the Blue and White, but unfortunately this seems all too familiar. Back in 2008, Luke Schenn was drafted 5th overall and he too impressed the Leafs brass, which resulted in him making the team right out of training camp. Schenn, like Gardiner, did not play a season in the AHL, and after his rookie campaign where he was already being dubbed the next captain of the Leafs, Schenn hit the infamous sophomore slump which he arguably never recovered from and ultimately lead to him being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers this offseason. When Schenn was shipped out of town in June, many people were quick to point out that the Leafs had ruined another young promising player by exposing him to the spot light too quickly. In other words, he should have played a season in the AHL. As history proves, there is nothing wrong with a little more seasoning in the minors. Detroit has been doing it for years, and Brian Burke himself did the same thing with Perry and Getzlaf back in Anaheim.
The lockout may actually be a blessing in disguise for Jake Gardiner. He will get his full season in the minors, and will be able to iron out some of the defensive deficiencies that plagued him last year. It is hard to prove whether Gardiner will hit a sophomore slump or not, but chances are that after an offseason where other teams have had a chance to find out his weaknesses, he will be exploited and there will be times when he struggles. With a season in the AHL, he will be able to improve as a player and under the tutelage of Dallas Eakins, will have a much better chance of avoiding the sophomore slump.
During the previous NHL lockout in 2004/05, NHL ready players like Eric Staal and Jason Spezza spent the year in the AHL. Both played their first NHL season in the 03/04 campaign, Spezza putting up 55 points and Staal netting 31. When the lockout hit, both Staal and Spezza went to their AHL affiliates where they each enjoyed incredibly successful years. Spezza went off for 117 points, winning the scoring title, while Staal scored 71 points. The following season 2005/06, the NHL was back and Spezza and Staal, in their sophomore years, enjoyed breakout campaigns. Spezza scored 90 points, and Staal 100. Both were able to avoid the sophomore slump, which can in large part be attributed to a year in the AHL. To be clear, I am not predicting that Gardiner is going to win the Norris Trophy this season, but it is pretty clear that avoiding the sophomore slump is a whole lot more doable after he has had a full AHL campaign under his belt. A north-american brand of hockey with Eakins at the helm should certainly help the promising youngster reach new heights, just one way that the organization can benefit from a lockout.
What do you think Leafs fans? Is an extra year in the AHL beneficial to Gardiner’s career or should he go play in Europe?