Gardiner agrees with scouts

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:40 AM ET

For now, Jake Gardiner is all about the numbers.

His Twitter account, by his telling, swelled to 2,400 followers from about 75 during the course of Wednesday.

During a game against Canisius College last month, Gardiner, a third-year defenceman at the University of Wisconsin, had a whopping 14 shots on goal.

And then there’s this: He has 30 points in 30 games for the Badgers, including seven goals and 23 assists, strong indicators of plenty of offensive potential.

But Gardiner, who may or may not be the next great Maple Leafs defenceman, didn’t disagree with several NHL scouts, who told the Toronto Sun on Wednesday that the 20-year-old has to improve in his own end before he stands a legitimate shot of making an impact with the Leafs.

“Defensive zone coverage,” Gardiner said during a telephone interview with the Sun on Wednesday night, about eight hours after he became Leafs property, along with veteran winger Joffrey Lupul and a conditional fourth-round draft pick in 2013, in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks that saw defenceman Francois Beauchemin head back to the west coast.

“You can’t play just one way, offensively or defensively, and play long in the NHL. I know the D-zone play is a lot sharper there.

“I have to choose my spots and not turn the puck over.”

Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who drafted Gardiner in Anaheim with the 17th pick of the 2008 NHL entry draft, sees him as a top-four defenceman.

“He is not ready, yet,” Burke said. “There’s a lot of jump in his skating, and that’s the reason he was drafted as high as he was.”

One NHL scout who watched Gardiner play two weeks ago, was not as sure, figuring the native of Minnetonka, Minn., would be no better than a fourth rearguard on the depth chart, and more likely, fifth.

“He’s a great skater, but when I saw him, he was running all over the place,” the scout said. “But he’s a good prospect. He just likes to get on the horse a little too quick.”

Said another NHL scout: “There is a lot of raw ability. His skating is elite. He’s a project, but a pretty good prospect.”

And though Gardiner is the go-to guy for the point shot on the Badgers’ first power-play unit, he might not necessarily get a similar opportunity in Toronto.

That’s the evaluation, today. There is plenty of time for it to change, but how quickly that happens, and if it does at all, no one is sure. Projecting what a player might become in the NHL based on watching him play in college or junior is a science that can’t be mastered. It’s why suggesting that Gardiner is the centrepiece in the trade is, at this point, a stretch.

Gardiner, a consumer affairs major, has not decided what he will do at the end of this season. Burke is not in the habit of asking players to leave school, and he stressed that he will not start with Gardiner.

But once Gardiner makes that decision, he probably will require development in the minors. Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins swiftly has been moulding a reputation as someone who does smart things with young players, so Gardiner should be in good hands.

The 6-foot-2, 193-pound Gardiner was caught off-guard when Ducks senior vice-president of hockey operations David McNab called him on Wednesday to tell him his rights were going to Toronto. But Gardiner warmed to the idea and, once the trade was announced, watched with interest as his Twitter account expanded rapidly.

“It shows you how dedicated the Leafs fans are,” Gardiner, a forward until his last year of high school, said with a small laugh. “It’s just an awesome feeling to be part of this organization. I’ve been to Toronto, and it’s a great city with a great fan base. My goal, obviously, has always been to play in the NHL.

“It’s cool that (Burke) said I could be (a top four). I’m not sure what comes next. We’ll see what happens.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca


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