TORONTO - Winding down his year-ending meeting with Luke Schenn last spring, Ron Wilson whispered the name of a prospect from the University of Wisconsin who had caught his eye with the Marlies.
"It's funny," Schenn said. "Wils told me 'There's this Gardiner kid who just got called up to the minors'(...) He said, 'You'll play with Gards maybe halfway through the year or in the future sometime', [explaining] that he thinks he can maybe be my partner. I don't know if we both expected it to be this early on, but Jake's come in and played extremely well."
Jake Gardiner at 21 and Luke Schenn at 22, have played 18 games together this season, offering the potential of "something special for us for a long, long time" as Wilson put it so eloquently last week. Both first round picks from the 2008 Entry Draft - Gardiner 17th overall, Schenn 5th - the duo possess the makings of an effective shutdown pair now and in the ever-expanding future.
"He and Jake are becoming a very good pair together," Wilson said, noting his dependence on the two in the dying moments of a close game in Anaheim. "We feel confident that they can play against the other team's best line and that's what we've been doing."
"It's pretty early," Gardiner added, "[but] we've been playing well. We have pretty good chemistry so we'll see what happens."
Still just a rookie with 22 games to his name, Gardiner has averaged over 21 minutes in November, leading the team in ice-time in each of the last two games, including nearly 30 minutes against Dallas last Friday. The Minnesota native is rapidly evolving into a dependable force for Wilson in all situations - notably on the penalty kill, with improvements still needed on the powerplay. Schenn meanwhile, struggled to start the year, but has since rediscovered the simple, effective and physical game that defined his success last season after sitting for a game on November 5th. He's logged over 20 minutes in back-to-back games for the first time this season.
"Feel like we've been getting more comfortable out there," Schenn said, a partner of John-Michael Liles to start the season. "It's been great playing with him lately."
Gardiner's elusiveness and patience with the puck have made him the ideal complement to Schenn, who prefers a steady stay at home game where possible.
"If I get in trouble he'll be back there, back for me and vice-versa," Gardiner said. "He's so good at being physical and being in the right areas at the right times defensively. I've been trying to communicate more with him; I think talking helps a lot. He's been moving the puck really quick lately and making really smart plays with the puck. I think he's got a lot of poise with the puck now."
Wilson's earliest scouting report on Gardiner was, according to Schenn, glowing to say the least. He gushed to Schenn in their exit meeting that the Minnesota native's game reminded him of Blackhawks defenceman and Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who with Brent Seabrook, forms one of the league's top defensive pairings.
"He's a similar skater and moves the puck kind of like that," Schenn said of Gardiner. "Obviously Duncan Keith's a pretty big name, but Jake's a young player who's come in here and played extremely well…moves the puck great, a great skater and he's actually a real, calm guy out there on the ice - as I guess as you guys all can tell - doesn't really panic at all and makes the right play."
"I don't know if I want to compare myself to him," Gardiner said, respectful of Keith. "Both those guys (Keith and Seabrook) are great players. I think hopefully someday we can be like those guys, but it's a long ways away so it's hard to say."
1. Scott Gordon has put a definitive imprint on the league's 3rd ranked powerplay. Hired in the offseason, the former head coach of the New York Islanders has quickly bolstered the 22nd ranked man advantage of a year ago into one of the league's best. "He put some structure to it," Carl Gunnarsson told the Leaf Report. In particular, it's Gordon insistence on clear-cut definition from each player - on routes - during breakouts and in-zone that has yielded results on the powerplay. ""In the end it's up to the players, but just to get that structure - everyone knows what they're doing - I think that's a huge part of it," Gunnarsson said. "Those games we haven't done our routes in the breakout and in-zone too, it's not been working," he continued. "As soon as we get back to that, it works out almost every time - at least our percentage goes up." When asked to compare the NHL structure to the route-running precision required of NFL wide receivers, Gunnarsson paused, before analyzing the similarities. "I don't really know about football how they do it, if they do their routes perfectly or exactly how they're supposed to do it. [But] in hockey, you can't exactly do it the same way every time - you've got to read off the other team too - but having that as a foundation, I'd say it helps out a lot."
2. Another new face on the coaching staff has also gradually garnered results. Former Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin has helped guide the once decaying penalty-kill to respectability over the last twelve games (86%). Gordon and Cronin both demand similar accountability, not shy to voice their displeasure at practice or on the bench. "They know exactly what they want," Gunnarsson said. "If you don't pay attention or don't do what they want they get pissed off. That's their similarities. They're obviously different persons, but they really stress that we should do the things in the system.
"That's what they're telling us and it's showing right now too. It's showing when we're doing what they're telling us to do and doing it properly it's really good."
3. James Reimer is nearing a return to game-action. The 23-year-old is slated to act as the backup to Jonas Gustavsson when the Leafs visit the Bruins for the second half of a back-to-back in Boston on Saturday. "I'm really close," Reimer said. "There's no holds barred anymore. You go as hard as you can and it's just like how it was a month, six weeks ago. I'm not being cautious or anything like that. I'm just gung-ho and just playing like a normal guy." Reimer noted the importance of an up-tempo practice on Tuesday. "We had a lot of flow drills, the guys were going hard and shooting on the fly and it was really game-like - those are the practices I need to get back to where I need to be." Wilson wouldn't confirm a return date for his number one goaltender, but the Leafs do play back-to-back games next week - Monday in New York versus the Rangers, Tuesday at home versus the Devils - making a comeback in one of the two quite likely. Reimer hasn't played since October 22nd, suffering from concussion-like symptoms.
4. Joey Crabb added his fifth goal of the year on Sunday against the Ducks, but aside from the bonus offence, the Alaska native has done perhaps his most effective work on the penalty kill. Crabb has been on the ice for just three powerplay goals against in 13 games, forming an effective tandem with Tim Connolly.
5. Dion Phaneuf logged an average of 26:49 in October (plus-7), but has seen that average drop by over two minutes in November (24:47). Phaneuf had a minus-7 rating through the opening ten games this month (plus-2 in the last three). Perhaps sensing his minutes piling too high, the Leafs felt the need to cut back if ever so slightly.