DETROIT – Randy Carlyle needed very few words to get his message across.
The Leafs head coach was asked directly if Jake Gardiner was back to resembling the player who performed so prominently in the playoffs. He responded firmly in the negative.
"No," he said, before repeating himself with some emphasis. "No, he's not."
Gardiner is looking to right himself after a generally lost 2013 regular season, one that saw him re-emerge with five points in six games during a thrilling opening round series with Boston. And yet, with training camp nearly at its end and the regular season opener in Montreal drawing near, it's clear he has yet to make a positive impression.
"We haven't got too many more days [left]," Carlyle sniped.
Though his hold on a job in the Leafs' top-6 would seem secure at the outset of the regular season, Gardiner does face internal competition for opportunity, notably in 19-year-old Morgan Rielly, who could fill a similar role, in theory, to his more experienced 23-year-old counterpart.
"Feeling pretty good," said Gardiner of his training camp performance, unaware of his Carlyle's assessment. "I think I've been limiting my turnovers and trying to still play offensive and join the play as much as I can."
Gardiner's presence at an optimal level is vastly important to the structure of the Toronto defence, one that had its share of instabilities last season. With no major upgrades to the back-end in the offseason – save for added stability from Paul Ranger – and some uncertainty as to expectations for Cody Franson, Mark Fraser and the aforementioned Ranger, it was thought that Gardiner could be the difference-maker.
Stunted by the after-effects of a December concussion last year, Gardiner got off on the wrong foot with Carlyle in 2013. His performance was generally off the mark in trips between the Leafs, Marlies and press-box. Previously lacking the assertiveness defensively that his coach required, the former Ducks prospect re-emerged in the playoffs, once again resembling the confident, aggressive asset that gave the organization so much optimism during a banner rookie season under Ron Wilson.
Of his playoff play, Gardiner explained that he was, "still skating a lot, still being offensive, but at the same time responsible defensively. I wasn't a liability at all. That's what I'm going to try to do this year."
So far, at least according to Carlyle, that hasn't happened.
Early in the first period at Joe Louis Arena on Friday evening, Gardiner was unable to push the heftier Todd Bertuzzi off the puck in the defensive zone and moments later it was in the back of the net, redirected from the point past Jonathan Bernier. It was the first of two goals against that Gardiner was on the ice for, the Minnesota native also adding two assists in 18 minutes.
Displeased with what he has seen so far, Carlyle could just be looking to rattle the cage of his promising young defender, an early attempt to prevent complacency before the puck drops at the Bell Centre on October 1.
Whatever the motive, Gardiner had better take notice.
1. Final exhibition for Bernier
Jonathan Bernier yielded five goals on 37 shots in what figures to be his final exhibition start. Friday proved his first full start of the preseason, the 25-year-old compiling an .891 save percentage in four games. "In my game I've got to be patient and I felt like tonight I made some stand-up saves which for me it's the way I play," said Bernier of the effort. "I was seeing the puck a lot better than the past few games so it's just got to get better." Bernier was still smarting afterward about the fifth and final Detroit goal, one that snuck five-hole off the tape of Johan Franzen. "For me, that fifth one, that's just a basic save," he said. "That's definitely a save that I've got to have."
Randy Carlyle has yet to make clear whether Bernier or his counterpart, James Reimer, will start in the regular season opener against Montreal, but did note that both goaltenders would play in the back-to-back set that also includes a Wednesday date in Philadelphia.
2. Franson debut
After he and the Leafs finally agreed to a one-year deal on Thursday, Cody Franson stepped into his first exhibition tilt against the Red Wings. "I felt pretty good all in all," said Franson, who logged 21 minutes alongside Gardiner. "They're a quick and skilled team so coming in against that you have to be sure of what you're doing and make sure you're in a good position." Franson spent most of the exhibition schedule training with the Ryerson Rams and thus was expected to suit up in both remaining exhibition games, including the finale on Saturday with Detroit visiting Toronto. "Just get my confidence up and get used to the pace of the game and the skill-set and your reads," he said of getting on track before the season officially opened.
3. Red Wings
Now an Atlantic division rival, the Red Wings sure made an impression in their first meeting with the Leafs, controlling Friday's affair from the second period onward. With Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss added to a group that already features the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, skill and puck possession was not in short supply. "It's like the Swedish national team over there," Franson chimed of the Wings, the pace furious throughout the Wings 5-2 win. "They hold onto the puck, they move it around really well, they pick their spots to dump it in well, and they're effective in what they do."
Icing nearly a full lineup opposite an equally full Wings group – the Leafs were notably short the suspended Phil Kessel – Carlyle conceded that Friday's game was viewed as a barometer to "some degree", the results not particularly appealing. "We're trying to do some evaluations," he said. "We had some kids in the lineup. That's what exhibition games are for." Of particular concern for the Leafs coach was the effort defensively and in particular the three power-play goals Detroit scored. "Some of the goals that we allowed them to score were in the critical areas," he stated. "We didn't have stiff enough protection in those areas."
The Leafs had the second-ranked penalty kill last season, but were ineffective at even-strength defensively, yielding the fourth-most goals league-wide. Considering the weak performance in such areas against the Wings on Friday with a group of mostly regulars – including the projected top-6 on defence – Carlyle had reason to be concerned.
5. Waiting game for Ashton
Carter Ashton dressed alongside Colton Orr and Jay McClement against Detroit, the 22-year-old looking to secure his first full-time job in the NHL. With energy and a physical presence, Ashton made himself noticeable at times throughout the preseason, but whether it'll be enough to claim a roster spot remains unclear. "Mentally you have to realize that there are decisions to be made," said the Lightning draft pick. "To ease your mind you just have to do everything you can in your power so you obviously don't second-guess yourself." With an injury sidelining Frazer McLaren at the outset of the season, a roster spot (perhaps two) would appear to be open in the Leafs bottom-6, one that Ashton looks primed to snatch. "Training camp's a stressful time," he said. "You have to come in and prove yourself every day."
The Leafs host the Red Wings in their final exhibition game on Saturday.