Shortly after the Toronto Maple Leafs lost their third game in a row in Winnipeg on Tuesday, attention on Twitter shifted away from the team's loss to Winnipeg and squarely onto Jake Gardiner thanks to a tweet from Gardiner's agent, Ben Hankinson.
Following the Maple Leafs' 5-2 loss to the Jets, Hanksinson, who goes by the twitter handle @benhankinson, tweeted a single hashtag, "#FreeJakeGardiner." Speculation as to what that meant for Gardiner, who is currently playing with the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, and his future in Toronto quickly lit up the social media site.
Some took the tweet to mean Hankinson wants Gardiner to be traded while others simply saw it as a desire to see his client returned to the NHL from the Marlies.
"It's just my agent's thoughts and it's his choice to tweet that," Gardiner said Wednesday. "There are always distractions, especially in Toronto. Sometimes people can blow things out of proportion (but) I don't think he meant anything by it and I'm not going to let that distract me."
Gardiner made the Maple Leafs roster as a 21-year-old rookie last season and played in all but seven games with the team. He was thought to be a crucial building block for the Leafs' future and expected to play a key role for the team heading into this year.
However, Gardiner has had little more than a cup of coffee with the big club this season, playing in just two games with the Maple Leafs and spending most of his season with the Marlies.
On Wednesday, Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins said he and Gardiner have a plan in place for his return to the NHL and said his agent's tweet is just another test for the defenceman.
Eakins was offended by what Hanksinson said, saying he doesn't feel Gardiner is locked in some cage with the Marlies, but if he was called up tomorrow he wouldn't cringe because he feels Gardiner is mature and ready to return to the NHL. He said he's felt that way for a few weeks.
During the NHL lockout, Gardiner sustained a concussion while playing with the Marlies in December, forcing him to start the shortened NHL season on injured reserve.
After recovering from his concussion, Gardiner made his season debut with the Maple Leafs on January 23. It was a short stay in the NHL, though, as Gardiner only played one more game with the Maple Leafs before being returned to the AHL when it became clear he wasn't in top form yet.
Despite thriving in the minors since his demotion and seeming ready to make his return to the Maple Leafs, Gardiner hasn't been called up. He has 10 goals and 20 assists in 40 games with the Marlies this season.