TORONTO – Jake Gardiner is fine-tuning his shot.
While the NHL lockout offers mostly doom and a good chunk of ill-fated optimism, there is the slightest bit of silver lining for young, rising stars like the 22-year-old from Minnesota and it's the American Hockey League. A surprise standout as a rookie on the Leafs blue line last season, Gardiner is a Marlie these days, intent on making the best of the hold currently placed on his National Hockey League prospects.
"It just gives you the ability to work on some things," he said of his AHL stint this fall.
Call it a looming trap of complacency for the intriguing crop of NHL up-and-comers currently toiling in the American League, a group that includes Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brayden Schenn and Cody Hodgson.
The luster isn't quite as bright here in the AHL, the aura of a minor league barn in Peoria light years away from the historic shine of Madison Square Garden. Many young players have endured the long bus rides, overnight journeys and three-game in three-night body sappers before, but after a taste of charter jets, luxury hotels and the best competition in the world, this league is likely to feel much different this time around. Simply put, it's not the NHL and these guys know it.
But if there's a challenge for top guns like Gardiner, it's to treat the league like it is the NHL, promptly demonstrating nightly why they're just a cut above the present competition.
"I expect him to be the best defenceman on our team," said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins of Gardiner. "We've had no problem with him, his motivation, we've had no problem with him playing hard every night, he wants to win, he wants to be the best player on the ice; I think this time for him right now is being well-served.
"Listen, I don't want him to become a good player in the American League or a good player in the NHL, we want him to push his limits. There can never be a limit on a player. And if he continues to push that limit every day then who knows what kind of player he ends up at the top level."
Eakins offered a warning to Gardiner after the Marlies run to the Calder Cup final late last spring, impelling him to remain focused in the offseason. "I know that I had a good season last year," said Gardiner before laying out the advice he received, "but don't sit back and don't do anything in the summer. I think some guys do that and hurt themselves a lot so just to keep working hard and doing the same things I did the previous summer to be ready for camp. And I did those things. It was some good advice. Obviously you're happy with what you've done, but it's nothing compared to a lot of people and you want to keep getting better every year."
"The one thing that I love about Jake and I've said it to him a few times during practice is don't pull back," said Eakins. "The way he's practicing right now he is right at the top of the list here. He's head and shoulders above some of our other guys. And what happens sometimes when a guy is practicing that well and that hard is that he'll pull back so he'll fall into the group. It's almost like he doesn't want to stand out, but I keep encouraging him, 'keep pushing the envelope, make them catch up to you, pull the group with you' and he's been doing that for the most part."
Using his AHL opportunity to heighten his "offensive abilities", Gardiner has specifically set his sights on improving the scope of his shot, its accuracy and precision through traffic. "Shooting for sticks, I think that's one of the things I needed to work on the most and it's been good so far," he explained. A seven-goal man in 75 games with the Leafs a year ago – adding just two in 17 playoff games with the Marlies – Gardiner has fired 22 shots in six games with the Marlies, scoring three times (13.6 per cent accuracy), including the second goal in a 5-4 overtime win against Hamilton on Friday. In an overall sense, it's been obvious most nights that he's just a grade better than the competition, precisely how it should be for a player of his calibre.
With no obvious end in sight to the lockout, Gardiner's AHL work placement will continue as the Marlies hit the road for two-plus weeks, landing in Abbottsford, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
With a temperament that rarely fluctuates above the median or as Eakins puts it, "he doesn't get too fired up about much", Gardiner has the steady approach necessary to the task of remaining on point in an inferior, albeit vastly improved league.
While he's emerged as arguably the most valued commodity within the Leafs organization – outside of maybe only Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick in the 2012 Draft – Gardiner seems to understand that he can't sit back on what he accomplished last year – leading all rookie defencemen with 30 points, also earning an All-Rookie team selection – or fall prey to the sophomore swoon that's humbled the careers of so many others before him.
Complacency just isn't an option.
"Don't think you're an all-star or anything like that," he said of his mindset this season, "just be the same way you were the previous summer and then in the season play the same way with more confidence, just don't get too over-confident I guess."