OTTAWA – It was late November and Jake Gardiner was trying to figure out what had gone wrong. The 23-year-old wanted to pinpoint precisely what was keeping him from having success.
"I obviously wasn't playing my best and wasn't really aware of what I was doing wrong," he told the Leaf Report ahead of a Saturday tilt with the Senators.
So he decided to hit the tape. Gardiner pulled out his iPad and scrutinized video of his performance in the first round against Boston last spring. He watched clip upon clip of his shifts against the Bruins, keen on determining what gave him so much success. His performance then was electric. Gardiner scored a goal and strung together five points during an exhilarating six-game run.
"I just wanted to figure out what I was doing differently in the playoffs, as opposed to now, because I wasn't happy with my game," he said of the video work.
What Gardiner saw was an engaged defender who made quick decisions with and without the puck. The game seemed to slow down for the former Ducks first-round pick. He was assertive, unpredictable and dangerous on the rush and generally stable in the defensive zone.
For the third-year Leaf, who has struggled with consistency this season, it was a helpful reminder of the player he had been not so long ago and the player he certainly had the potential to become once more.
"It was nice to see what I was succeeding at then and try to replicate that now," Gardiner said. "Sometimes you get away from it and you don't know what the reason is."
Gardiner was a healthy scratch for the first time this season on Nov. 27 in Pittsburgh. During the morning skate that day at Consol Energy Center, he engaged in a lengthy conversation with head coach Randy Carlyle, the former Norris Trophy winner advising on what he'd seen and what needed to improve.
Carlyle wanted Gardiner to make better decisions with the puck. He stressed that his young defender must move it faster, that he get his forwards involved more often and join the attack if and when the opportunity looked right. Too often, Gardiner gathered from the conversation, was he holding the puck before eventually making a poor decision with it and a turnover often the end result.
"I wanted to know what I was doing that they didn't see that they wanted to see," Gardiner said of his conversations with the coaching staff. "I think I've been more aware of it now; trying to move the puck quick and obviously still stay solid defensively."
Gardiner was an offensive force in his rookie season with the Leafs. He scored seven goals and posted 30 points, tops among first-year players at the position. He has yet to score this season, though, and has just seven assists in 28 games. But by skewering the tape and picking the minds of the coaching staff, he finally seems to understand why the offence hasn't been there.
"It's almost the fact of just doing less with the puck," he said. "I'm able to skate the puck a lot, but that doesn't necessarily mean offence. I don't have many points this year, so I think moving the puck quicker to the forwards and letting them do their work, [then] maybe I'll create more offence that way. It'll create fewer turnovers for me and less time in our zone."
Gardiner has not yet rediscovered the performance that made him such an elusive force against the Bruins, but he's inching gradually in that direction. In beating the Stars on Thursday, he led the team with nearly 26 minutes – matching a season-high – and also paced the group in Montreal last weekend.
His return to form would help stabilize an increasingly wobbly Toronto back-end. Armed with new (and old) information, Gardiner is doing his best to get there.
"I just want to be able to help the team as much as I can," he said, "and those are things that help me as a player and help our team too."