In a fairly short amount of time, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner went from someone who needed to be “freed” to someone who can freely spend a heaping amount of cash.
Whether you opt to take his comments at face value or attribute it to the happy glow of that $20.25 million extension, Gardiner told the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran on Wednesday that he’s just fine with the way head coach Randy Carlyle treats him.
“He is a coach that likes to push his players and get the most out of them,” Gardiner said. “I think that was what he was doing with me.
“I have a lot more potential than what I’ve been doing. I think (Carlyle’s approach was) good for me. It will help me down the road.”
Of course, it might also help that new assistant Steve Spott might be able to play “good cop” to Carlyle’s gruffer “bad cop” with players like Gardiner. (Meanwhile, Peter Horachek would put the 5 in “Five-Oh.”)
“He’s a really positive guy and a good guy to have around the locker room,” Gardiner said of Spott on Wednesday.
For many, seeing Gardiner at his best might come down to a possible paradigm shift in the Maple Leafs organization rather than the blueliner merely adapting to Carlyle’s ways. The Score’s Thomas Drance argues that Gardiner could be a key piece to a more possession-conscious style in Toronto … at least if he’s allowed to do so:
Gardiner’s skating ability and overall hockey sense make him an excellent spatial problem solver, which allows the Maple Leafs to be outshot and outscored less dramatically when he’s on the ice.
The problem, of course, is that the Leafs are still outshot and outscored dramatically, but it doesn’t have to be that way, not with a handful of talented forwards, excellent goaltending, and quality puck-possession defenders like Gardiner and – the Leafs hope – eventually Morgan Rielly. Gardiner and Rielly could be – and probably should be – the engine for a club with lots of speed up front.
In other words, Gardiner’s been paid, but it’s the system that still needs to “free” him up.