There have been many down moments for the Toronto Maple Leafs since the 2004-05 lockout.
They have not made the playoffs since 2004. They seemed like they were on their way to a postseason berth last year, but the season fell apart in February, and they went into a deep spiral that placed them on the outside looking in when the 2011-12 season came to an end.
But the seemingly stagnant state of the Maple Leafs may be about to take a turn.
They may have a long way to go, but they are starting to add quality young players who will be able to make a difference when (if) the lockout finally comes to an end.
One of the most important of those younger players is defenseman Jake Gardiner.
The former first-round pick (17th overall) of the Anaheim Ducks got his chance to play with the Leafs last year, and he had a very solid rookie season, scoring seven goals and adding 23 assists along with a minus-2 rating, while playing for a team that gave up 264 goals last year with a minus-33 goal differential.
Gardiner, 22, was regarded as a top-four defenseman when the Ducks drafted him, and there has been no reason to change that assessment after the play of his rookie season.
Gardiner is a 6'2", 185-pound defenseman with a left-handed shot that he can get away quickly. According to HockeysFuture.com, Gardiner has the quick feet and soft hands that allow him to get into the offensive play and receive and distribute the puck accurately.
Gardiner was a forward early in his career, and he has solid offensive instincts as a result. He has developed impressive defensive skills for a player who did not start out as a defenseman. His speed allows him to recover quickly from his mistakes.
Gardiner's upside appears to be quite promising. But the Leafs are not quite sure how quickly he will develop.
When Toronto was mentioned in the Rick Nash sweepstakes prior to last season's trade deadline, Gardiner's name figured prominently in related trade rumors.
According to Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox, one insider compared Gardiner's ability level to Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks. Keith is the Blackhawks' best defenseman, and he was sensational during their 2010 Stanley Cup run. He has not played to that level since then, however.
Gardiner is a promising young defenseman already with a very high upside. However, he's quite selfless on the ice. He's much happier making the pass to a teammate than taking the shot himself (via Toronto Star).
That may have to change if Gardiner is going to reach the heights that many scouts believe he is capable of reaching.
If he can make that adjustment, he may become one of the most consistent and impressive defensemen in the NHL.
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