The Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff has some tough decisions to make. Jake Gardiner is proving he is capable of stepping into the National Hockey League.
On a team that has essentially eight capable NHLers on its roster, the battle for roster spots was going to be a tough one. Throughout this preseason Toronto has iced varying groups of defenders.
Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek, Keith Aulie and Jake Gardiner have all been demonstrating why they belong. The projected pairings by Leaf fans, for the most part, have been:
It seems that there is a battle for the sixth and final playing spot, with Gunnar, Komi and Gards all vying for the position.
Burke has always said that once a prospect has proven he can step into the NHL, it is management's duty to make room for that player. Jake Gardiner has proven he is ready to make the jump. Now, there are a couple ways in which Toronto could accomplish this for the opening night roster.
Komisarek and Gunnarsson have become expendable. They no longer fit into the Leafs' defensive core. One will most likely serve as the seventh defender. Both of these players have come into camp making a case for themselves, and both have played some improved hockey. But both also lack something that simply cannot be taught—versatility in skill set, and Jake Gardiner's is a rarity within the NHL.
The problem in moving these players so that Gardiner would be able to dress on opening night is in trading them, since they both have one-way contracts. But, at the same time, in order to showcase both the players as trade bait, they also need to play.
Keith Aulie is the only defender on a two-way contract other than Gardiner. If Brian Burke wants to showcase Komisarek or Gunnarsson, and have Jake Gardiner in the lineup, Keith Aulie has to be sent down until one of these players can be moved.
These pairings will bolster a pairing with impressive offensive potential in Liles and Gardiner. Being a liability on defense is a result of poor team play, and this pairing would need diligent coverage on the back end, while also showing good judgement and sound decision-making as offensive defensemen.
The depth on defense is something to get excited about. It presents the opportunity to dress a more versatile group that can adapt to injury and also presents the opportunity to bring in more assets through trade.
The timing on a move like this is anyone's guess. But Jake Gardiner's play may speed up the process.