COLUMBUS - Though his team would be bested that night in Chicago, Jake Gardiner made sure to learn a thing or two from the defending champs. What emerged most prominently for the 23-year-old Leafs defender was how active his counterparts on the Blackhawks defence were, specifically 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith.
Gardiner had one of his better outings this season against the Ducks on Tuesday night, leading the team with 18-plus minutes at even-strength, an active and engaged presence in both ends for much of a 4-2 victory.
"That's how I want to play every game," he told the Leafs Report. "I thought I was moving my feet more than I have been in the past couple games, joining the rush, helping the offence out. That's what makes teams like Chicago so good is their D is always active. That's when I'm successful too and it obviously helps the team. I was doing that at the end of the year last year and I tried to replicate that a little bit."
Gardiner is still trying to recapture the formula of his rookie season. But in doing so he is also striving to evolve into a more complete defender, mostly at the prodding of head coach Randy Carlyle and the Toronto coaching staff.
"I think he's been better than he was at the beginning of the year," said Carlyle, ahead of the team's lone trip to Columbus. "We've met with Jake on numerous occasions, provided him video, tried to get him an understanding of where we think he can improve."
Much of that improvement hinges on the degree to which Gardiner betters himself defensively, positioning and assertiveness ranking high on the list of priorities. Carlyle wants his young defender "not to be in such a hurry to be carrying the puck the full length of the ice" and let the game "develop in front of him".
Of the greatest change between playing for Carlyle and former Leaf coach Ron Wilson, who coached him to all-rookie honours two years back, Gardiner says it's the aggressiveness demanded of him physically.
"I wouldn't say I finished my checks as much as I did two years ago," said Gardiner, averaging nearly 20 minutes this season. "I think I finish them a lot more now and am more aware of where guys are on the ice, especially in the defensive zone. This coaching staff has worked a lot with me and I think that's a big part probably."
Gardiner struggled upon returning from a concussion last season, suiting up for only 10 regular season games before emerging as a different defender in the playoffs.
Expectations were predictably uncertain for him entering the fall. A mishmash preseason didn't help ease those concerns.
"Preseason I probably wasn't doing a great job of it," he said of "finishing checks and holding guys up and stuff. I think I've gotten better at that for sure."
The coaching staff has offered much in the way of instruction, be it on video via the iPad or guidance on the ice at practice. Prior to an outing in Philadelphia earlier this year, head coach and player sat on the bench shortly before puck-drop breaking down film. And after a Thursday workout in Toronto, Gardiner spoke to assistant coach Dave Farrish about his performance.
"It's little details in the game where I need to work on," he said, "something maybe I'm not aware of but they are."
With Paul Ranger occupying the left side - this after a near four-year absence from the NHL - Gardiner is also being asked to play right defence for the first time in his career. Seeing the game from unfamiliar terrain has required an adjustment. "That's something I've never really done before," he said. "I think it's going to take a little bit to get adjusted to. I'm working at it and trying to get accustomed to it."
Also worth noting: Ranger represents the eighth different partner Gardiner has played with in the NHL.
"He's not really played the right side a lot," Carlyle said. "But we've decided to put him over there because of his skating ability."
Gardiner's greatest gift may just be that ability, his ease and effortlessness on skates allowing him to rush the puck up-ice with uncommon composure. Carlyle has given him the green light to go when an opportunity presents itself in such situations. But Gardiner knows that caution must be exercised, turnovers a definite no-no.
"I have the freedom to go," he said, "but if I turn it over I think I'm going to be in trouble so I've just got to be aware of that and pick my spots.
"If I see an opening I think I should probably take it most times depending on the situation. Randy always focuses on defence first so I can't be too high-risk."
While he has shown signs of engaging himself in the offence with more frequency of late, Gardiner has totaled just two assists in the opening 10 games. He led all rookie defenders with 30 points two years earlier.
Part of what makes Gardiner such an attractive commodity on the back end is the risk-factor he presents, the unpredictability of his attack often difficult to defend. His potential in that regard was never more pronounced than in the aforementioned postseason, the Minnesota native compiling five points in six games against the Bruins.
He's not at that level yet, but strides are being taken in that direction.
"I can always improve," Gardiner said. "I don't think I'm at that point yet."