With 31 points in 41 AHL games, Jake Gardiner is 10th in scoring among defensemen in that league. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
When former Maple Leafs center and current San Jose Sharks broadcaster Jamie Baker recently remembered his time as an NHLer in the Toronto fishbowl, he recalled some words of wisdom from a franchise legend.
“When I got traded to Toronto, Wendel Clark gave me some great advice,” Baker said. “He told me, ‘The media will make you better than you are or worse than you are, but you’re never going to be what you really are.’”
Clark’s view of life as a Leaf – think of an encircling series of funhouse mirrors distorting your every move – is something to remember when you read about the current “controversy” involving prized Leafs/Marlies defenseman Jake Gardiner. If you missed it late Tuesday, NHL player agent Ben Hankinson tweeted the message “#FreeJakeGardiner,” setting off a predictable torrent of wild speculation about Gardiner’s future in Toronto. Some saw it as a sure sign Gardiner was frustrated by being kept in the American League despite playing very well – and despite the Leafs’ current losing streak – and used his agent as a means to send the message.
But remember, as Clark said, things are never as bad or as good as they seem in Toronto. The increased attention that comes with wearing the Blue and White amplifies everything about the Leafs. And in this case, while it’s true Gardiner doesn’t want to be playing for the Marlies, it’s not as if this is a player with a stick of dynamite between his teeth and a match between his fingers intent on blowing up his bridges with management and orchestrating his way out of town.
The fact is, Gardiner was sent down in the first place because the Buds finally have some depth on the blueline and didn’t need to ask the 22-year-old to play a large role in the NHL for the team to succeed. That should be viewed as a huge positive. And really, has everyone in this city already forgotten the name Luke Schenn and his Leafs legacy? There was another young defenseman who, given his druthers, always would have chosen to make the jump to the NHL directly from junior. Well, he was given those druthers, but his confidence and play suffered for it over the long term.
Moreover, current Leafs center and blossoming star Nazem Kadri clearly benefitted from his years in the AHL. Nobody doubts there were many nights Kadri didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to ride buses instead of charter planes, didn’t want to accept he had a good ways to go before he was in position to really impact games at the NHL level. But he bit his lip, paid his dues and is now a more complete player.
Here’s the bottom line: all teams want their AHL affiliate filled with players aching to pack their bags and join an NHL team as soon as possible. They want to cultivate a collective team hunger to play well enough to be considered for promotion to hockey’s top league. If you can create such an atmosphere, you create a competitive tide that raises all players’ boats. And as a player, you’re supposed to have supreme self-confidence at this level of the game.
But that doesn’t mean teams allow you to decide when you’re ready to play. That equation involves the inmates and the asylum, only in the wrong order.
The funny part of this Gardiner/agent/Twitter saga is that it is very likely the player was going to be back with the Leafs in the next couple weeks anyway. With the April 3 NHL trade deadline fast approaching, Toronto is considering dealing away some of its blueline depth for help in other areas and there’s no doubt Gardiner will be atop the list of players ready for recall as soon as a swap is consummated.
Of course, Gardiner won’t get that call today or tomorrow, even if team brass wanted to. To bring him up after this sequence of events would send the wrong message to other Leafs players dealing with varying degrees of malcontent. However, blowing this out of proportion and painting Gardiner as a bad seed or spoiled kid isn’t the answer, either.
The media will make you better than you are or worse than you are, but you’re never going to be what you really are. That’s life as a Toronto Maple Leaf and life for Jake Gardiner these days. It’s the norm, the gnawing norm, in this city. And anybody who tries to gin it up into something more is only pulling back the curtain to reveal their own knee-jerk tendencies, not those the Leafs no longer possess.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.