Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs

As you likely heard today (because for some reason I assume everyone does what I do all day, which is sift the hockey interwebs for interesting things), Jake Gardiner has been recalled by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For the uninformed, Jake Gardiner is a 22-year-old Leafs’ prospect who…wait – do you still call a player with 77 NHL games-played and 30 NHL points as a defenseman a prospect? – I suppose you’re allowed to. Okay – Jake Gardiner is a 22-year-old Leafs prospect who has played 57 AHL games over parts of the past three seasons, scoring 36 points along the way. For clarity, that’s 134 pro games since he left college, and 66 points from the back end as a young kid, which is excellent output.

I’ve seen Gardiner play in person a few times, and to me, he falls into a certain category: some kids just aren’t going to miss unless something goes drastically wrong. There’s no guarantee that a player is going to be an NHL star or anything, but some kids, as much much as we love to pretend most do it all on hard work, are just too gifted to miss.

Jake Gardiner is an NHL player. And from what I’ve seen of guys like him that I’ve played with, I feel comfortable unequivocally stating that there’s no point messing with the psyche of guys in that situation. Bubble wrap over barbed wire. There’s no reason or excuse to potentially damage the relationship between player and organization when the latter is banking on the former being a key piece, or at the very least, a piece. You’re going to be roommates, so maybe try to avoid the fight for the good spot in the parking lot on day one.

There seems to be this mentality – and don’t misunderstand, it’s much more of a mentality of old school coaches – that you need to strip down your players and rebuild them, in hopes that by breaking them they’ll heal stronger like bones. Some kids are cut out for that; in fact, some kids need it. Some tough-to-reach kids could use a goddamn reality check – Yes, you were the best player on every minor hockey team you were ever on. Yes, you were great in junior. But now every player on your team was that guy too, therefore you don’t get to be an entitled brat, or we’ll find the next kid who was always the best on his teams.

Some players heed the given advice, work harder, adapt new facets of their game, and climb the ranks. I knew Blake Comeau when put up 74 points in 60 games in the WHL, and I’ve seen how hard he’s committed to doing what’s necessary to make the show (in his case, grind). It’s survival of the fittest.

As the great Too $hort once said, “get in where you fit in.”

But again – these are different types of kids. These are not the Can’t Miss Kids. (Again, not saying Gardiner “can’t miss” as a star, I’m saying this kid is an NHL defenseman, I promise. It’s obvious.)

Back when Ken Hitchcock was hired by the St. Louis Blues and Davis Payne (a coach I greatly admire) was shown the door in 2011, I was skeptical, as I was of Michel Therrien’s with Montreal, based on their no-nonsense attitude, and my belief that old-school coaches miss what dealing with today’s young players is all about. But man – look how they’ve turned out (the answer is “very well”). But the reason they’ve surprised us so much is that they’ve largely changed their ways in dealing with young kids. They’ve become “2.0″ versions of their former selves. Which is good, because I just don’t think young superstars of today need to be torn down and rebuilt like old Chevys.

Here’s what Hitchcock had to say to Pierre LeBrun some 15 months ago in a post titled “Time has done wonders for Ken Hitchcock,” in which the Blues coach demonstrates how healthy a little self-awareness and willingness to adapt can be:

“If you really want to be a good coach, you have to stay current, and stay current with everything — not just current with the X’s and O’s,” Hitchcock told ESPN.com Thursday. “That only takes you so far. You better stay current with how to deal with your athletes and how to deal with adversity. How they deal with adversity. This group of athletes deals with adversity in a much different way than you or I did. Way different.”

Hitchcock took in a symposium the past two summers that taught him about today’s younger athletes. He took notes. He listened. Notoriously hard on players, Hitchcock said that education made him return to the game with a bit of a softer edge.

“The thing that’s softened for me is having to deal with the athletes of today,” said Hitchcock. “Some of it comes from experience but also some of it comes from the fact I’ve worked really hard at understanding this age group and what they need to be successful. It’s different working with this age group — it’s a lot different. It’s way, way different from 10 years ago.”

As Hitchcock explains in that article, and as I’ve seen in my own experience, some players today thrive better under circumstances where they understand why decisions are being made, where communication is more open, and where they’re not getting their chain jerked around for no reason. I think we all do better when things are like that.

I’m not saying a coach today needs to be a nanny and wipe the backsides of the players and tell them everything is going to be okay. There’s a middle ground. What I am saying is that today, the threat of a bagskate isn’t quite as intimidating as it used to be now that teams have to request that guys stay out of the weight room so much, and they can barely feed them enough personal video. Not everyone is that committed to their fitness, but I assure you, nobody is smoking between periods. New coaches need new manipulation techniques, even if said technique is as crazy as say, having a relationship with a guy.

There are plenty of good reasons to keep players in the AHL, first of which is that they’re not ready (BREAKING). I watched another Leafs’ prospect, Joe Colborne, as much as possible when I was at the game watching Gardiner last Wednesday, and I understand why he’s not up in the big leagues yet. Not to say he couldn’t be, but he’s certainly not any better than anyone on the current roster (save for Orr and McLaren, but they’re obviously specialists, like less-important field goal kickers). He’s big, and gets around well, but still doesn’t quite have the body control. But I digress.

This should be it for Jake Gardiner, and really, it has to be – if he plays three more games in the NHL, he’d have to clear waivers to get sent down, and 29 other teams would claim him. It’s not just his 41 points in 41 games as a d-man his last year of college, it’s that he looks that much better skill-wise than everyone else in the A too (admittedly, he looked a little bored, or wary of getting hurt, or annoyed, or something, but the talent was undeniable). That skill set in that league isn’t really a fair fight.

It’s just a shame it had to happen at all. Who knows what burying a young, obvious NHLer behind the likes of Korbinian Holzer, Mike Kostka, J-M Liles, Mike Komisarek, and Mark Fraser does to the relationship of the player and team, the player and the organization. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Who knows.

I just think when you have a talented guy like Gardiner, it’s silly to risk damaging relationships so a coach and GM can wear the I’m In Charge pants. As I said: most young stars today just don’t need to be torn down and rebuilt in their coach’s image.

Comments (15)

  1. I think I love you.

  2. Going on the trade market for a field goal kicker that fights.

    /Chan Gailey’d

  3. The Leafs sure need to do something. I think this is a great move that is long over due. If they lose any more games and miss a playoff birth Toronto is gonna go ballistic.

    • Ugh. The fact that the leafs could miss again is just plain hard to watch. Next 5 games are huge and they need to stop the bleeding

    • toronto wont go ballistic.. they’ll just fill up these message boards talking about trades ( that never happen ) free agent signings ( guess those ducks signing really took the wind out of that sail huh bitches ) and as soon as the regular season starts you’ll blab on about how you showed some promise and this year will be the year, and you’ll all walk back to the acc with your mouths wide open, while MLSE holds its dicks out for you

  4. remember when melrose fucked stamkos raw…. now look at stamkos… might have some upside

  5. At the NCAA coaches convention a few years ago in Naples, FL, Jack Parker gave a speech on the same topic. He talked about how much more these kids have on their minds and going on in their lives than kids even 10 years ago. He got into specifics about Charlie Coyle; who was worried about the world jrs, the draft, and the prospect of major junior all while adjusting to life as a college freshman.

    It is just a different world than it used to be. 10 years ago in a locker room, there were no ipods and beats by dre, guys weren’t staging fights on twitter, parents were not calling DIVISION 1 COACHES to complain about ice time, and there were no family advisors pulling kids in one direction or another. For better or for worse, coaching and development today is 90% psychology and 10% x’s and o’s.

    • yes there was… i had an ipod in 2003.. dr. dre was around wayyyyyy before 2003, world jr.s has been around since late 70′s, draft has been around since 63 ( i think ), people were staging fights on MSN chat, and parents have been complaining about ice time since the invention of both ice and the telephone

      please do not ever comment here again, thanks

      • Okay, I gotta be honest here, “Babalubabalee” – I’ve been reading over the comments on the last few posts this morning, and I think you might be at the wrong place. If you want to sift through comment sections and call everyone morons, there are no shortage of places to go do that. Backhand Shelf is not one. You’re welcome to continue commenting, even disagreeing, as long as you can be, y’know, semi-civil.

        Chill out. It’s a blog about hockey.

        • That was great JB, and your Hitchcock example is spot on. Having talked to a few players that were playing for Payne & now Hitchcock, they don’t see hitch as an old school coach. He’s almost a “players” Coach. Biggest difference between Payne & Hitch, is that Hitch utilizes two groups of players to get a bead on his team. When the blues lost 5 straight early in the year, all these blues fans were calling for a bag skate, Hitch didn’t do it. He focused on his leadership core to take the reins on getting the boys to buying into the program. Also remember most of the Blues core had Andy “I don’t believe in momentum” Murray as a coach. Talk about old school yell at the kids, control everything freak, he wouldn’t even let therookies pick their number, or wear a hat backwards in the locker room! They know have hitch handing off the starting lineup, either to Shattdeuces or himself, and then they roll it out hip hop style, talk about a loose team!

  6. Man, when Randy Carlyle said something about Gardiner having yet to prove he’s too good for the AHL, I nearly flipped out. I mean, first of all, yes he has. Second of all, who care’s if he isn’t “too good for the AHL” if he’s better than at least half of the defencemen on your active roster?

    Completely inexplicable that Gardiner spent that long with the Marlies this season while Kostka, Holzer, and Fraser were with the Leafs.

  7. Just read this and agree with the point of view. I can’t wait to see Gardiner play with the big club again. Don’t forget, though, that he went down in large part because he was recovering from concussion symptoms. In addition the Leafs were playing pretty well defensively. Finally there might have been an “agent” effect – my question about this guy is what was he doing before the “free Gardiner” tweet and, further, if he needs to use Twitter to plead his client’s case, what kind of agent is he anyway?
    Go Leafs!

  8. Good article.

    Funnily enough, Carlyle has read that article on Hitchcock too, and claims it changed the way he approaches his players. Maybe not in this case?

  9. Nobody made a crack about the “have a relationship with a guy” line? I guess we are making progress!

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