Let’s say you heard a 21-year-old puck-moving defenceman was on the trading block.
Drop dead talent. Tied for the team lead in plus minus. Fourth on the team in ice time with over 21 minutes per contest and trending up. Points leader among NHL rookie defencemen.
What would you give up to land such a player? Congratulations, Leaf fans. You are the only team that doesn’t have to covet Jake Gardiner.
Gardiner is on track to be the best Leaf defenceman since Borje Salming left town in 1989. Gardiner was born a year later.
I know, comparing a defenceman who has played 52 career games with the team’s standard bearer on the blue line seems a little, well hasty. Delusional, ill-conceived, premature. Pick one.
But Gardiner is a generational defenceman, the kind of talent who comes around once every couple of decades.
With five years between Gardiner and free agency, he will continue to be a bargain. While his skating is his most startling skill, it’s the less conspicuous elements of his game that make Gardiner so arresting.
Gardiner is nearly impossible to separate from the puck. His positioning, the way he angles toward a puckhandler and angles away from a defender, is faultless. He is the most dependable Leaf in his own end although of late that has become a fairly muted compliment. His ice time, 20 minutes or over in 15 of his last 16 games, reflect that dependability. Despite a bad read that resulted in a Devils goal, Gardiner trailed only Dion Phaneuf in ice time as the Leafs fell 4-3 to New Jersey, Tuesday. Had his shot in overtime been an inch more to the good instead of dead onto the goalpost, the Leafs would have salvaged another crucial point.
Gardiner has only recently begun to trust his shot and no longer defers to his teammates. If you mapped out his sorties in the offensive zone it would look like a shopping spree, dash here, linger there, circle the perimeter, repeat.
That’s why I think he’s the Leafs best player. Right now.
And that’s why the talk of the Leafs trading Gardiner for a shot at Rick Nash has precisely no chance of passing into fact.
At 27, Nash’s career is cresting as we speak. You don’t trade your best player if he is 21.
There is no precedent for that kind of a trade.
The Boston Bruins were fleeced for 24-year-old Joe Thornton. The Leafs managed to grab 23-year-old Mats Sundin for Wendel Clark. Mike O’Connell, the architect of the Thornton deal was gassed four months later. The Nordiques, meanwhile, slipped into a nuclear winter from which they are yet to recover.
There would be no replacing Gardiner. John-Michael Liles has delivered excellent service to the Maple Leafs but he is 31. Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf are all-arounders, albeit Phaneuf leans to the offence while Gunnarsson is more conservative.
Jesse Blacker is the only defenceman in the organization with an offensive orientation and he has precisely one goal in his rookie season with the Marlies.
Happily there is no need to worry about replacing Jake Gardiner at Air Canada Center. For now and for what should be a long while, he comes with the place.
-Notes: Many thanks to the readers who pointed out my faulty math.