Note: The Leafs sent down Korbinian Holzer following my writing of this article and did in fact recall Jake Gardiner. Too little too late in my opinion. Gardiner should have been here weeks ago.
Over the past two days on this site I have referenced the absence of Jake Gardiner from the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup and how it was another article for another day. Well, today is that day. I am not going to get into the statistical argument that illustrates Gardiner as a 22 year old rookie last season registered 30 points in 75 games. Nor will I discuss how on his way to an all-rookie team berth, Gardiner averaged 21:35 a night on the exact same Leafs team that is currently mediocre defensively. In case people weren’t aware those numbers there should illustrate that Gardiner is a good young defenseman. Considering the Leafs are sixth worst in the NHL in shots against per game (31.9) and struggling on the power play (ranked 17th) perhaps it may make sense to have their third best blueliner from last season – who excels in relieving pressure in the defensive zone and quarterbacking a power play – in the lineup.
While my feelings are very strong in support of having Gardiner back with the Leafs, Randy Carlyle has decided to hold a grudge and stubbornly move forward without a player that can help solve two major issues with his hockey club. The source of Carlyle’s anger towards Gardiner may stem from the tweet Gardiner’s agent Ben Hankinson posted last week:
— Ben Hankinson (@benhankinson) March 13, 2013
From what has been reported about Carlyle, he does not take kindly to gestures like that one from Hankinson. Lately though, two major members of the national hockey media have come out and repeated the exact same solution to this problem. Both Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet and Darren Dreger of TSN have reported that Carlyle’s stubborn streak towards Gardiner is effecting the success of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kypreos on Hockey Central at Noon (here is the link) and Dreger on the Mike Richards Show (link here) argue that Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis must step in and remove the Gardiner issue from Carlyle’s plate. Both said that Gardiner’s abilities are crucial to the Leafs success, therefore Nonis needs to trade away current members of the Leafs blueline in order to leave Carlyle with no choice but to re-insert Gardiner to the squad. Is that how far gone this current issue is? If Nonis needs to move assets in order to force superior players into the lineup is Carlyle really the coach that he wants in charge of his team?
According to multiple reports Nonis didn’t want the Leafs to hire Carlyle, he (apparently) recommended Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins as the man to guide the club. If Carlyle and Nonis disagree on which players should be playing – to the extent that Nonis is removing options in order to force Carlyle’s hand – how long before he just replaces Carlyle with the man he thought was appropriate in Eakins? Keep in mind that Nonis saw how his predecessor (Brian Burke) was criticized and ultimately dismissed because he waited too long to fire a coach that he did not hire. Does Nonis learn from that saga and put in place the man he wanted all along? Eakins has coached many members of this current Leafs team to great success in the AHL and is looked upon as a major up and coming coach in the NHL. Is it wise for the Leafs to let a highly thought of young coach walk away in order to keep a stubborn and old fashioned one in Carlyle? If the Leafs collapse again is Nonis ready to lose his job on a coach that he never wanted in the first place?
When looked at closely, the Gardiner-Carlyle feud is more significant than not icing the best team, it demonstrates a fundamental difference in how the Leafs GM and Coach view the squad. In that clip linked above (in which Kypreos argued for Gardiner) fellow host Doug MacLean said Carlyle is stubborn to a fault and has created too many issues for an already fragile Leafs team. MacLean pointed to bizarre decisions such as: misusing Mikhail Grabovski (the Leafs highest paid forward), making John-Michael Liles a healthy scratch for 12 straight games, strangely pulling James Reimer very late in a game to send a message and burying Gardiner as unnecessary distractions to a blue and white team that is the second youngest in the NHL and in a battle to end a seven year playoff drought in the leagues biggest (and most intense) market.
The Leafs are at a crossroads right now. Carlyle’s job security went out the window the day that Burke was blindsided by the MLSE board. How Nonis proceeds forward will be interesting. The Leafs have placed themselves in an enviable position of having great financial flexibility moving forward. However, should Carlyle remain would free agents want to sign for a coach that is known to be very difficult on his players? How about the current Leaf players? Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel are UFA’s following the 2013-14 campaign and Gardiner’s ELC expires at the same time, would Nonis choose Carlyle over those cornerstone assets? Carlyle was fired in Anaheim primarily because of feuds with players (primarily Bobby Ryan), how long before history repeats itself in Toronto?