Jake Gardiner is ready to return to the NHL, but right now there is simply not a spot for him on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster.
"He can play in the NHL right now," Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins confirmed on Tuesday, "but it's not as simple as that. The big team's got to have a hole for you, you have to be able to take somebody's spot out of that NHL roster and that's what pro sports is all about. There's always someone coming for your ice time and you can never ever take it for granted. That's the battle that Jake's in right now."
Gardiner was expected to play a key role on a thin Leafs blue line this season after earning rave reviews last year. He played 75 games during his rookie campaign scoring seven goals and registering 30 points while averaging 21:35 of ice time per game (third among Leafs defencemen).
But Toronto is currently riding a four-game winning streak, allowing just six goals in that stretch. Korbinian Holzer is growing in confidence with every outing and has recently been paired with captain Dion Phaneuf. Mark Fraser, the team's plus-minus leader (+10), has formed a capable partnership with Cody Franson, who is riding a four-game point streak and leads all Toronto defencemen with eight points. Mike Kostka continues to log considerable ice time (averaging 24:30) with Phaneuf the only Leaf ahead of him in that category. Veteran John-Michael Liles, who wore a letter when regular alternates Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur were both out of the lineup, has picked up five assists and is +2.
Waiting in the wings is Carl Gunnarsson (hip), who will almost certainly reclaim a roster spot once he's healthy, although there's no timeline for his return. Mike Komisarek, a healthy scratch the last five games, is also an option should anyone falter.
'It's Not Easy'
"I'd like to think I could play [for the Leafs right now], but it's not really my decision," said Gardiner. "I've just got to keep playing my game and try and earn my spot.
"It's not easy. Whenever you get sent down, it's not a good feeling. I don't think anybody likes that. It's never easy to take, whoever you are and whatever the situation is. I just want to try and get back as soon as possible."
Gardiner sustained a concussion while playing for the Marlies on Dec. 8, 2012. He returned to action with the Leafs playing two games (January 23 at Pittsburgh and January 24 v. NY Islanders) before being sent down to the American Hockey League after it became apparent he wasn't at the top of his game.
"His conditioning is as close as it's ever been to where he was last season and at the start of this season but, hey, there are other battles, other guys up there playing very well," said Eakins. "That team's won a number of games in a row. You have to make your spot and that's going to start here with his continued good play."
"I think I'm playing well," said Gardiner, who has three assists in the six games since being sent down. "There's a lot of good defenceman up there so it's not going to be easy to take a spot back or earn that back. I feel like I'm playing pretty well right now. It's just a matter of time I think."
It has been a difficult road back for the 22-year-old Minnesota native.
"Sometimes you don't think you're going to recover and kind of doubt yourself," he admitted. "I think the biggest part is kind of just waiting until your back and ready to go and don't try to push it and you'll eventually get the confidence back. Concussions are a weird injury. There's not much you can do, but wait."
'I Told Him To Relax, To Breathe'
Gardiner can take solace in the fact Holzer was also demoted this season before getting an opportunity to return when Gunnarsson's injury became too painful to play through. Holzer had looked nervous in his first NHL game this season (Toronto's home opener against Buffalo) and was sent down to the Marlies after Gardiner was activated. Eakins had a chat with Holzer to refocus the 24-year-old German shortly thereafter.
"I told him to relax, to breathe," said Eakins. "You have a kid that you really believe is ready, he knows he's ready and then you put him into a game and he's nervous. It's a big deal, he's wanted to play in the NHL his whole life and then suddenly it's there and maybe he's a little off and for me, he's a kid that needs to settle in."
Eakins is not surprised Holzer, picked by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, has gotten on track during his latest stint with the club.
"I think he gets better with time. He does a lot of great things on the ice that a lot of people don't recognize at his position. I haven't really seen him play as of late, but I understand from talking to the coaching staff and the management that he's played better. That's what you want. You want them to be continually improving no matter what level it is, whether it's here, NHL, you want those guys getting better every day."