Jake Gardiner has once again found his way into Randy Carlyle’s doghouse, as the swift-skating defenseman is expected to be scratched from the lineup and replaced by Korbinian Holzer in the Leafs final home game of 2014 against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.
Gardiner was -2 in Toronto’s 4-1 loss to the last place Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, failing to tie up Chris Terry on Carolina’s opening goal and making a half-hearted effort defending against a two-on-one on Justin Faulk’s shorthanded goal late in the first period.
He also took a delay of game penalty for a baffling swing at a puck that went over the glass.
This comes on the heels of an equally terrible effort against the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings last Sunday, where Gardiner and defense partner Korbinian Holzer combined for 5 giveaways and were on the ice for two of LA’s three goals, including Justin Williams’ opening goal where he swung at a puck over his head.
The 24-year-old blueliner has been a healthy scratch on two occasions, based mostly on his chronic inconsistency at one end of the ice, which has not been counterbalanced by production at the other end. Gardiner was second in defensive scoring behind Cody Franson with 10 goals and 21 assists in 2013-14, but has dropped to fourth behind Franson, Dion Phaneuf and Morgan Rielly with just two goals and six assists in 30 games.
“I think Jake’s been very erratic, simple as that.” Carlyle said at the MasterCard Center on Friday.
Toronto has seven defensemen with the return of Roman Polak on Thursday and the solid play of Holzer in his second NHL stint with the Leafs gives Carlyle the option of giving the young defenseman another wakeup call, but Gardiner’s high-risk high-reward nature has to be something that GM Dave Nonis considers when projecting the future of the club’s blueline.
Based on the uncertain situation with the league’s salary cap next season, the Leafs may not have the flexibility to re-sign pending UFA Franson to a new deal and keep Gardiner(signed for $4.025 Million through the 2018-19 season), who does not have a no-trade or no-movement restriction on his deal. Franson has become a more valuable commodity this season due to his pairing with Phaneuf 5-on-5 and his continued strong offensive numbers.
With the growth of sophomore Morgan Rielly as a puck carrier and another year of maturation for Stuart Percy and Petter Granberg, the Leafs may shop Gardiner prior the NHL Trade deadline in March to clubs looking for offensive help on the blueline, in order to open up cap space to re-sign Franson.
Gardiner appears to desperately needs a change of scenery, away from the minute-by-minute scrutiny of Toronto where every giveaway is magnified. The Leafs could use him as part of a package to acquire a forward capable of playing in the top six or for another defenseman if Nonis is not certain that he can re-sign Franson, who may be the Matt Niskanen of the 2015 free agent class.
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