TORONTO – On draft day in the summer of 2012, the Maple Leafs parted with a defenceman they once viewed as an anchor of the future, a top-five overall selection they traded up to land in the first round of the 2008 draft.
Luke Schenn was picked 12 spots ahead of Jake Gardiner.
Looming this summer for Dave Nonis and Toronto management is a decision similar to the one faced when it came to Schenn - deciding when to cut bait with a high-upside, but potentially flawed prospect. Then-Leafs general manager Brian Burke made the choice at just the right time with Schenn, who is back in town on Saturday, sending him to Philadelphia for James van Riemsdyk, the one-time second-overall selection who had yet to blossom as a Flyer.
Gardiner has stalled in his third NHL season, only sparingly resembling the emphatic, change-of-pace defender he was in the playoffs last spring and before that, as a rookie, under then-head coach Ron Wilson.
Like Schenn, the 23-year-old was viewed very recently as a concrete piece of the Leafs' future, a status that has muddied with each game gone by, his performance wavering uncertainly in each of the past two seasons. Gardiner, whose name has been floated in trade rumours constantly, is a restricted free agent this summer and it's at that point that a choice will definitively be made on his future with the Leafs.
Though he still leads the team in even-strength ice-time this season, he has seen his opportunities consistently plummet; from a season-high of nearly 24 minutes nightly in December down to less than 21 in January to fewer than 19 in February and now to a season-low of about 17 in early March.
There's upside there – his elite skating ability most prominent – and the Leafs know it, but in some doubt now is whether that upside can be unlocked or whether the former Wisconsin star is too flawed in other areas to make him worth hanging onto, especially with younger defenders like Morgan Rielly, Stuart Percy and Matt Finn already in the prospect chain.
Unlike Nazem Kadri, who tested the organization's patience, but eventually offered sustained stretches of development, Gardiner's play has been mostly erratic since his rookie debut. There was a six-game spell in the playoffs against Boston with other hints proving infrequent.
It's well established that defencemen typically take longer to mature than forwards – Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson among the notable exceptions – all of which complicates the decision-making process when it comes to Gardiner.
His inconsistent play in the past two seasons may be just be part of the development curve.
Once a defenceman himself, head coach Randy Carlyle joked that it took "too long" for him to finally mature into a well-rounded NHL defender, offering insight into why the process lingers at the position.
"I think because you handle the puck more," said Carlyle, who won a Norris Trophy in his fifth season. "There's more pressure on a defenceman in the game to handle the puck and make the right decision with the puck and you're constantly under pressure from the opposition trying to strip you of the puck, body-check, all of those things…"
Tim Gleason, a 31-year-old and member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver, said it was only a few years ago that he found his bearings at the NHL level. His response as to why it took as long as it did mirrored Carlyle.
"The more you do it the more used to it you get and it slows down a tiny bit," he told the Leaf Report. "It's different than being a forward; you have pressure on you instead of giving pressure. As a forward, you're taught to pressure the puck as quick as you can, as fast as you can. As a defenceman, your job is to protect the puck, get the puck out being under pressure. I think that's a big deal."
Gardiner has struggled in that regard. His decision-making with the puck and, even without it, has been flawed. He's made wholehearted attempts to make "smarter plays with the puck," "not making so many turnovers and or, at least, not in bad areas," but it's remained an ongoing issue anyway. At Carlyle's prodding, h''s also tried to become a stiffer defender, stating his intent to work on things such as "having one hand on my stick, body position, finishing checks."
He's watched a lot of video, too, even pulling his performance from that memorable series against the Bruins at one point earlier this year. It's tantalizing performances like that – when he had five points in six games – that surely give Nonis and his team pause when it comes to moving on from Gardiner.
Schenn was dealt only nine months after he signed a rich, five-year deal with the Leafs. It was determined that his shortcomings – foot speed specifically – would ultimately keep him from reaching the promise that saw the club move up two spots to select him in the '08 draft.
With his value still at a point where it could seemingly fetch some sort of return, Gardiner's shortcomings could force another such decision in the months ahead.
The Toronto defence has been a source of instability all year and will certainly require an upgrade or two in the offseason. Whether Gardiner and Cody Franson, a fellow restricted free agent, fit into that mix remains to be seen. Four members of the Leaf back-end are signed beyond this season – Gleason, Rielly, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson – all seemingly on more solid ground within the organization than either Gardiner or Franson.
There's upside there with the Minnesota native. In question is whether the Leafs will keep waiting for it.