DETROIT - Jake Gardiner just won't go away.
The promising 21-year-old defenceman had another impressive night Friday at Joe Louis Arena as he continues an unlikely bid to crack the Leafs opening night roster. The Minnesota native had a goal, an assist and nearly 26 minutes of ice-time (game-high) as the Leafs topped the Red Wings with a 4-3 overtime win.
Gardiner's ever-emerging presence on the Leafs blue line has further complicated things for Ron Wilson heading into the preseason finale against Detroit on Saturday.
"If he's one of your better defencemen, it's an easy decision," said Wilson. "We start training camp, we have our meetings and talk to the team and we tell people 'If you earn a spot on the team, we'll find or blow or hole in the lineup to get you in there' and there's a few people who've done that."
A long-shot to make the team at the start of training camp, Gardiner has forcibly pressed a slew of more experienced players - Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson and Keith Aulie - into a squeeze for ice-time on what's become a crowded defence.
"He's pushing us all," said Franson, who played over 22 minutes on Friday. "He's making us earn our keep here. And it's good for the team. Any time you can force guys that have been in the league for a bit to be better it's going to help your team, so I think he's done a good job of that."
The Red Wings offered the stiffest test of the preseason to date for the young Gardiner, what with top-notch offensive talents Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Nicklas Lidstrom all in the lineup. While there was one stumble - a puck bounced over his stick - leading to the Red Wings third goal, Gardiner maintained consistent poise with the puck, his swift stride effortlessly on display.
"Yeah, I felt pretty comfortable out there," said Gardiner, who also logged significant time on the penalty-kill. "They're known to be a fast and skilled team so it's fun to be out there with them, but you've got to keep your awareness level up and I think I was pretty comfortable out there tonight."
"He's going to be a really good defenceman for a long time," added Wilson.
Whether that's now or later has yet to be determined.
Wilson did concede that the team has discussed the prospect of carrying eight defencemen - at least to start - an unlikely scenario when camp began. "It's possible," he said. "We've talked about that a little bit, but we're going to have tough decisions to make."
Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles and Luke Schenn all appear to be cast in stone, but beyond that the situation on the blue-line is far from clear. None of Komisarek (who scored the OT winner on Friday), Gunnarsson, Franson or Aulie have played particularly poorly, but Gardiner has pushed the envelope so far that he's seemingly blown past them all.
"When you've got a guy coming in and making a case for himself, it threatens guys' jobs," concluded Franson. "He's putting some pressure on us. It's good."
Clarke MacArthur caught Justin Abdelkader with an elbow to the head at the conclusion of the third period on Friday. Abdelkader was not impressed with the hit, racing after MacArthur when the horn sounded. "Obviously I wasn't trying to target his head," said MacArthur, who drew a hi-sticking penalty on the play. "I just grazed him and I think he was trying to draw a penalty. It was just one of those plays [that] hopefully it shows it on the tape. But I was obviously going for his shoulder and trying to get out of the zone with the puck there."
Under new chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, stiff interpretations of the newly amended rule 48 (illegal hits to the head) have led to a string of lengthy suspensions. MacArthur is hopeful that he'll remain unscathed. "They don't want that going on, [but] that was not my intention whatsoever so hopefully everything just works out."