Leafs' Gardiner forcing Burke's hand
|Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Jake Gardiner skates at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence Toronto on Tuesday August 30, 2011. (Ernest Doroszuk/QMI Agency)
TORONTO - A few weeks ago, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was sure he had the defensive pairings all figured out, but now because of the strong play of 21-year-old prospect Jake Gardiner he'll have some tough decisions to make.
The conundrum for the Leafs' brass is this: not only has Gardiner been the most impressive young player at camp, he's been their best defenseman and that's saying a lot when you consider the competition he's going up against. The smooth skating University of Wisconsin product has been winning battles, playing physical and moving the puck with the poise and confidence of a seasoned veteran.
As a result, he's forced himself into the fray before the organization was ready for him. A problem that will create more deliberation among the club's brain trust, but not one that will have anyone complaining. In fact, Burke has publicly acknowledged the impact Gardiner has had on the club in his short time at training camp and seems to be willing to make space for him should he maintain his play.
But who gets the axe?
One would think that the easy decision might be to make Mike Komisarek sit. The 29-year-old is coming of a sub-par campaign and has looked flat-footed in the pre-season, but with a huge $4.5 million contract and a central leadership role he'll most likely get one more chance. Burke also loves his veterans, so let's assume that Komisarek starts the season with the team.
By the looks of it so far at camp, Carl Gunnarsson has grown into a serviceable NHL defenseman with decent offensive upside, but due to the reasons mentioned above he's probably slated for the seventh spot. He'd also have to clear waivers if he was sent down to the minors and that's not something the Leafs want to gamble with. Let's assume he stays as well.
Keith Aulie can be demoted without clearing waivers, but his chemistry with Phaneuf in the second half of last season makes him a strong possibility to start the season on the first pairing.
So where does all this leave Gardiner?
Unfortunately the best option might be to send the youngster down to the Marlies for one more season. This is not a decision that will sit well with many fans, but they can take solace in this: the Detroit Red Wings make it their organizational blueprint to over-ripen their prospects before bringing them up to the pros and their winning record speaks for itself.
One more season in the American Hockey League wouldn't hurt Gardiner, and it could possibly be a confidence builder as he would be allowed to lead the Marlies' developing defensive core. It would also give Wilson and Burke some time to figure out what to do with Komisarek, Gunnarsson or Aulie. Should a trade, bad play or injuries open up a spot, Gardiner could confidently step up into his role with the Leafs at any point during the season.