By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 2) – The biggest mistake of his managerial career in hockey is one that David Nonis has not yet made. And no one – including Randy Carlyle – should force him into it.
Yes, Jake Gardiner is having a difficult third season with the Maple Leafs. After appearing in 75 games as a rookie in 2011-12 – and showing flashes of brilliance – he encountered the quintessential sophomore bump. That put him in the exclusive company of just about every other second-year player in the NHL – past and present. For reasons that have never been fully explained, talented professional athletes almost always struggle to duplicate an impressive rookie performance. Perhaps it results from higher expectation; perhaps from an inflated ego – as Ron Wilson used to suggest – after the off-season lauding of friends and family. Whatever the case, Year 2 is commonly troublesome.
Year 3 often proves remedial. Having acclimated to big-league tempo, experience kicks in. Ability and instinct prevail over uncertainty. Such progress was widely anticipated with Gardiner, who came to Toronto in the Brian Burke/Bob Murray exchange of Feb. 9, 2011 – the former Maple Leafs GM trading veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin back to Anaheim for Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul and a fourth-round draft pick.
Almost immediately, the swap was viewed as part salary dump (Lupul) and part future (Gardiner). No one could predict whether Lupul had much left in his body, after enduring a serious infection related to back surgery. It was known, however, that he and Carlyle – then coaching the Ducks – were far from a perfect match. Gardiner, a University of Wisconsin grad selected 17th overall by Anaheim in the 2008 NHL draft, was considered a blue-chip prospect and – for the Leafs – a deal maker.
JAKE GARDINER: STAGNATING THIS SEASON UNDER RANDY CARLYLE BUT STILL A FRONT-LINE PROSPECT FOR THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
The trade appears to have benefited both parties. For a second consecutive season, Anaheim is strongly arranged in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division with an 18-7-4 record for 40 points – third-most in the NHL and one point in back of division-leading San Jose. Though remarkably injury prone, Lupul has contributed nearly a point-per-game with Toronto while ignoring his apparent distaste for Carlyle. Gardiner, on the other hand, has become stagnant in his third season – but not stagnant enough to be surrendered. And, this is where Nonis must continue to exercise a deliberate and methodical trigger-finger.
For two reasons: a) Carlyle – demanding and intrinsically restless – appears to have soured on Gardiner, as he did on Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. Nonis moved out the latter two in the off-season and both are contributing to their current teams: Grabovski in Washington; MacArthur in Ottawa. There is no evidence – right now – that either deletion was beneficial for the Blue and White. More significantly, b) Gardiner took a rapid, enormous step in the opening-round playoff series against Boston last May, erupting with flair and flamboyance. He self-assuredly maneuvered the puck from Leaf territory into the attacking zone – Bruin defenders scrambling to control his agility and speed. Almost overnight, Gardiner morphed into a commanding presence; the trade with Anaheim appearing to slant enormously in Toronto’s favor.
It still could… providing Nonis is willing to endure with Gardiner and is non-indulgent with Carlyle. Coaching, by definition, is a “now” pursuit. Those that cannot encourage results, or – in Carlyle’s apparent case – cannot build on previous results – are imperiled. Carlyle is well aware the Leafs must avoid sliding out of playoff territory under his watch. A struggling blue-liner, even one with enormous potential, is therefore a liability. Nonis, as GM (and a good one), must remain detached while observing the big picture. Clearly, he should understand that no long-range plan for the Leafs excludes Gardiner. Not at this point.
Both men – particularly the coach – might reflect on a moment, 35 years ago, that harmed the Maple Leafs. After a breakthrough season under Roger Neilson in 1977-78, GM Jim Gregory met with his defensive-minded coach and made one of the worst trades of his career. On June 13, 1978, Gregory dealt center George Ferguson and a young, puck-moving defenseman to Pittsburgh for veteran blue-liner Dave Burrows. As Leafs fell in the standings, the young defenseman matured into a prime asset and won the Norris Trophy, three years later, after contributing 16 goals and 83 points to the Penguins.
The defenseman’s name? Randy Carlyle.
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