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.