TORONTO - If Brian Burke right or wrongly continues to be second guessed for making the now-famous Phil Kessel deal with the Boston Bruins some two years after the fact, isn’t it about time he and his management team get kudos for bringing Jake Gardiner into the fold?
Back on Feb. 17, the Leafs sent veteran defenceman Francois Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Joffrey Lupul, a highly regarded blue line prospect and a conditional draft pick.
While Beauchemin definitely had a positive influence on the kids inside the young Maple Leafs dressing room, he never really lived up to the big three-year contract he signed with Toronto in 2009. By dealing him to the Ducks, Burke & Co. immediately lopped a $3.8-million US cap hit off the books for the 2011-12 season.
Lupul, meanwhile, was attempting to resurrect his career after coming off a severe back injury. Fortunately for the Leafs, there was little evidence of rust by the veteran forward in the final six weeks of the season, a period in which he showed the potential of some on-ice chemistry with the enigmatic Kessel.
Now, eight months later, it has become apparent that the real gem of that trade was the acquisition of Gardiner, the aforementioned prospect who was playing for the University of Wisconsin at the time.
When the Leafs announced their final personnel moves on Monday en route to trimming down to the 23-man roster limit, it was Gardiner who survived the cut, something even he did not think would happen several weeks ago.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I had a good rookie camp (in Oshawa),” Gardiner said after learning he would be staying with the Leafs. “But as the pre-season went on, I felt more and more comfortable. I thought I got better every time out.”
So did management, which ended up opting to ship Keith Aulie to the AHL Marlies instead of Gardiner.
Acquired in the blockbuster deal that brought Dion Phaneuf to the Leafs from Calgary 20 months ago, Aulie seemed to come into his own after he was called up from the farm for a second time late last season. He was particularly effective when paired with Phaneuf, who arguably played his best hockey in a Toronto uniform while lining up with Aulie.
Aulie didn’t have the best of camps, however. And with the Leafs playing just twice in nine days, the thinking was that Aulie, in the words of coach Ron Wilson, “needed to play,” an opportunity he’ll get right away with the Marlies.
Don’t be fooled, however. Given the depth the Leafs have on the backend, count on their defence corps being an ever-changing work in progress.
As it stands now, the defence pairings for the opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday looks to be Dion Phaneuf-Carl Gunnarsson, John Michael Liles-Luke Schenn, and Gardiner-Mike Komisarek, with former Nashville Predator Cody Franson occupying the role as the No. 7 defenceman. Write those down in pencil, not pen. They could change as fast as one of Wilson’s mood swings.
In a perfect world, Burke would like to use his blue liner surplus as bait for a possible trade for forward help. Gunnarsson is a likely candidate and will be showcased while playing with Phaneuf.
Franson has an encouraging upside and would seem to be in the team’s long-term plans. Aulie, meanwhile, is just a phone call away, especially if Gardiner has some hiccups once the regular season kicks off and the bullets start flying for real.
Komisarek, who has been less-than-advertised since signing as a free agent in 2009, has looked quicker during camp. The thinking is that his veteran influence makes him an ideal partner for Gardiner.
Gardiner showed some warts in his game on Saturday, the second of back-to-back outings against the Red Wings. But it was his fine performance 24 hours earlier at Joe Louis Arena on Friday that showed just how promising he can be, scoring a goal and an assist against a very strong Detroit lineup.
“I have to say he’s been the surprise of camp,” Wilson said. “He certainly has earned a spot.”
How long the smooth-skating Gardiner stays with the parent club remains to be seen. Either way, given what we’ve seen so far, his natural talents alone makes the Beauchemin trade seem like a coup for the Leafs.