Mats Sundin will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame November 12.
Let’s play a game.
Who is the best guess for the next Leaf to be inducted?
Stop thinking about it. The answer is Jake Gardiner.
The great thing about the Hall of Fame question is that it makes you consider posterity right away. Based on all the players in the system, who is the guy with the most star quality?
There is no telling IF there will be another Maple Leaf Hall of Famer in 10, 20 or 50 years. But IF there is – and that IF is bigger than Manitoba - then right now there is no comparable candidate, no one with the upside and staggering skills set to match the kid wearing 19.
Which makes Gardiner’ s progress worth noting, especially with the rest of the Leafs news a tad slow. Imagine that – a lockout and you still get the story about the player with the best chance of emerging as a Leaf Hall of Famer. Not my first rodeo.
Gardiner is making the American League his playground. The fear of course was that with the big league locked out, Gardiner would spend his winter working on not getting hurt.
Instead, the 22-year-old has been a sensation.
Gardiner has three goals and five points in six games for the Marlies, who open a two-week road trip in Abbotsford B.C., Thursday night.
The trick, insists Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, is that Gardiner wants to be the best player on the ice…at practice.
“I’ve said it to him several times: don’t pull back,” Eakins said. “The way he’s practicing right now, he is right at the top of the list, head and shoulders above some of our other guys.”
There is more play in Gardiner’s game. In Mike Kostka, brought over from Norfolk as a free agent, Gardiner has a veteran partner who can handle the puck and fill in behind him. The offensive flair that seemed to grow with each shift in Gardiner’s rookie year with the Leafs is surging in the AHL.
“This gives me the ability to work and fine tune my offensive abilities,” Gardiner said. “I’ve been working on my shooting, shooting to score, getting pucks through, shooting for sticks.”
That Gardiner is willing to dominate his peers as well as his opponents speaks to a growing comfort with himself.
“What happens when a guy practices that well and that hard is he’ll pull back so he will fall into the group,” Eakins said. “It’s just like he doesn’t want to stand out. I keep encouraging him, keep pushing the envelope, make them catch up to you, pull the group with you. He’s been doing that.”
Gardiner led NHL rookie defencemen with 30 points last season. He scored seven goals in 75 games.
“We’ve had no problem with his motivation,” Eakins said. “We’ve had no problem with him playing hard every night. He wants to win. He wants to be the best player on the ice. I think this time for him right now is being well served.”
Gardiner said the trick has been to stay the course.
“It starts in the summer. Don’t think you’re an all star. Be the way you were the previous summer. “
And be better than he was the previous fall.