After years of anointing Nazem Kadri as the next great Leafs player, Leafs Nation has collectively turned its attention to their smooth-skating, budding defensive star, Jake Gardiner.
That's not to say Kadri won't develop into a good player; however, with the ascension of Jake Gardiner (who was named to the NHL's all-rookie team last season), fans have become enamored with their offensive wunderkind on the blue line.
After a solid rookie campaign in which Gardiner led all rookie defensemen in points, expectations will be higher for the second-year rearguard as he attempts to avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump."
Gardiner is a key cog on the power play and an astute player that can create opportunities by jumping into the rush—as such, he will be counted on to provide scoring punch from the back-end again in 2012-13.
As Gardiner's development continues and he irons out the wrinkles in his game, his ascension to stardom will be accelerated. As a surprising revelation during training camp who played his way into a top-four role, it is clear Gardiner has only scratched the surface of his potential.
Potential which will be realized, due to the following five reasons.
When the topic of Jake Gardiner arises, the conversation inevitably shifts to discussion of his most obvious trait, his skating ability.
As the accompanying video indicates, Gardiner is an effortless skater who is equal parts strong and agile on his skates. His speed and quickness allow him to skate the puck out of dangerous areas in the defensive zone, while also allowing him to be a factor offensively. With his stride, Gardiner can either start the rush from his own end or join the rush to create odd-man opportunities.
Although his skating is beneficial when the Leafs have possession of the puck, it's just as important when they find themselves without it. Gardiner has the ability to recover quickly if he finds himself out of position, and his speed mitigates odd-man rushes against the Leafs.
His ability to retreat and recover the puck also allows the Leafs to transition quickly through the neutral zone. Gardiner's skating ability is leveraged in various ways and allows him to control the game—a hallmark of all great defensemen.
In keeping with the obvious traits Gardiner possesses, youth is also a point of discussion when talking about him.
Seeing full-time NHL duty at 21 years of age is a feat in itself, but playing a top-four role in one of the sport's toughest positions to learn and averaging 21:35 minutes of ice time is even more impressive. As Gardiner enters his second NHL season at the age of 22, his development will be accelerated.
Whereas many defensemen his age are beginning to learn the intricacies of the game, Gardiner is flourishing and making himself an indispensable member of the Leafs' organization. His youth is an asset as it not only provides him with ample time to learn the game, but more time to stay atop of his game once he reaches his potential.
Displaying all the makings of a top-tier defenseman at such a young age, Gardiner has carved out a role for himself and become a building block for the Leafs as they move forward.
Building a winning team is a time-consuming process that can take years, so having time on Gardiner's side due to his youth is incredibly important and valuable.
Rare is the young player who steps into the NHL and not only keeps up with the pace of the NHL, but controls the pace of the game.
With an incredibly high panic threshold and maturity beyond his years, Gardiner is able to effectively slow the game down and buy himself time and space before making the smart play.
Gardiner's poise is beneficial on the power play as well. Against aggressive penalty kills he remains eerily calm along the blue line, deftly making saucer passes over the outstretched sticks of opponents and rendering clogged passing lanes moot.
As Gardiner grows into an expanded role, his poise will serve him well. As a player who will inevitably be depended on more and more as his career progresses, maintaining composure and focus during most integral points in the game will be vital for the Leafs.
Early indications are that Gardiner relishes the opportunity to be a difference-maker and a player who will thrive in late-game situations.
The term "hockey IQ" is thrown around a lot in this day and age, but the frequent references to it lend credence to the notion that it is the most important trait a hockey player can possess. Many a player has forged a career on being able to read the play and understand the game despite any physical limitations. Dave Andreychuk, anyone?
When watching Jake Gardiner play, it's easy to see he understands how to play the game. As with any young player, he is prone to making mistakes, but more often than not he makes plays many young defensemen may not be apt to make.
Whether it's hanging on to the puck a split second longer in order to allow the play to develop instead of forcing it or picking his spots when it comes to jumping into the rush, Gardiner has the ability to read and react to the play in a manner beyond his years.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Gardiner's hockey smarts is his ability to get shots through from the point. Rather than simply blasting pucks into the shins of shot blockers, Gardiner will take a little of his shot to ensure it finds the net or make his patented slap-pass to a teammate.
These seem like simple plays that any player would make, but oftentimes turnovers will be the direct result of poor decision making. Shrewd decision making is what separates the ordinary from the extraordinary, and Gardiner's hockey acumen is proving to be above and beyond ordinary at this point in his career.
Beneath the gruff exterior of Randy Carlyle lies a potent hockey mind. A defensive-minded coach first and foremost, Carlyle will be able to help Gardiner out where he needs it most: in the defensive zone.
Like most young defensemen, Gardiner's defensive awareness and coverage need to improve. There is no better option than a former Norris-trophy winning coach to impart wisdom upon him in order to make him a two-way force.
Although not a player's coach and a demanding figure behind the bench, Carlye's insistence on attention to detail without the puck will benefit the Leafs' prized defenseman. As Gardiner's all-around game improves, he'll turn into an all-situations kind of player instead of simply being an offensive specialist.
Not every coach is cut out to work with young players, but Carlyle was instrumental in the development of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. His demanding style and expectations for Gardiner will help the young Leafs blue-line prodigy learn what it takes to be a force in the professional ranks sooner rather than later.