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The Maple Leafs' problems are bigger than Jake Gardiner

Gardiner's glaring miscue attracted the boo birds Monday, but he's not the root of Toronto's recent struggles. It's time for the Leafs to address some crucial roster needs.

These were not the images one associates with a hockey team good enough to boast the NHL’s sixth-best post percentage:

- Jake Gardiner, outworked and humiliatingly pickpocketed, not by a Colorado Avalanche superstar such as Nathan MacKinnon or Mikko Rantanen, but by hard-hat center Carl Soderberg, for a shorthanded goal.

- Mitch Marner, frozen in his tracks for a few seconds, then expressing deep disappointment after the game when reporters inform him the Toronto Maple Leafs’ home fans at Scotiabank Arena booed Gardiner every time he touched the puck.

- Gardiner, facing the same scrum, owning up to his mistakes, pausing to choke back tears upon learning his teammates stuck up for him fervently.

Larry Murphy became a target in Toronto during his short tenure there in the mid-1990s, but that team had peaked. It was beginning a descent into post-Pat Burns, pre-Pat Quinn hell. Bryan McCabe heard the boo birds too but, again, that wasn’t until his later years playing for the post-lockout Leafs, who were beginning what would become a six-season playoff drought.

This Leaf team, though? It’s supposed to be a rocket ship angled straight up, owner of two All-Star Game invitees and deserving at least two more, third in the NHL in goals per game, one of the most exciting teams in hockey, charting a path toward Stanley Cup contention. Perhaps that’s why the Gardiner treatment felt different – particularly targeted and malicious – during Monday night’s 6-3 home defeat against the Avalanche.

“That hasn’t happened before, that’s for sure,” Gardiner said. “Not something you want to hear. But plays happen in the game, and fans are passionate, and they want to win.”

It obviously stung Gardiner, and it stung his teammates almost as much.

“He comes to work every day like a pro, he works hard, his teammates love him, he’s the most popular guy in this room,” said blueliner Morgan Rielly. “Guys make mistakes out there all night. That’s the way the game is. It’s played on ice, so things happen that can be unpredictable. It just happened that it ends up in the back of the net. If not, it’s probably a nothing play.”

The boos might’ve been new, but the sentiment wasn’t. Gardiner has spent much of his tenure with the Leafs, especially the past couple seasons, as a polarizing player. The analytics crowd believe his positive contributions vastly outweigh any negatives. Over the past three seasons, 149 defensemen have played at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5, and Gardiner ranks 12th among that group in points per 60 minutes, tucked between Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones, and third in expected goals for. Gardiner ranks top-30 in Corsi For per 60 minutes, too. His defensive metrics don’t shine as brightly, but they’re hardly atrocious. Those of us touting numbers like these do so in an echo chamber, of course. The haters don't read them, right? What stands out among them are the memorable, scorched-on-the-brain, highlight-reel mistakes like the one he made against Soderberg Monday. The eye test looms large over the actual long-term results. The old-school thinkers will point to Monday and “his minus-5 in Game 7 against Boston.” In that three-season sample of 149 blueliners, he does rank 10th in individual giveaways per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, but Rielly ranks ninth. Erik Karlsson ranks eighth. Puck-moving defensemen have the biscuit more often and will thus record more giveaways. The turnovers don’t result in as many 10-bell chances as one might expect, either. More than 250 D-men have logged at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, and Gardiner ranks in the top 100 in fewest high-danger shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes.

As usual with Gardiner, the eyes don’t tell the whole story.

“The guy does everything for this team, Marner said. “People don’t give him enough credit – ever. He’s a guy who does a lot of plays for us here. He makes a lot of stuff happen. It’s pretty disappointing to hear (about the boos). That guy means a lot to this team, not just on the ice but off the ice as well. For all the young guys, when we came in, he’s a guy who let us come in and talked to us right away. He’s a big part of this team, and going forward he’s going to be the same way.”

That said, the eyes and intangibles still tell some of the story. The Gardiner debate isn’t black and white. He does struggle with confidence issues at times, and one could argue it wasn’t a coincidence his confidence failed in the third period of a Game 7. Every boo directed his way seems to nudge him closer out the door and into unrestricted free agency. The Leafs, focused on re-signing RFAs Marner, Auston Matthews, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, will be hard-pressed to retain Gardiner considering that, if Karlsson re-signs as a San Jose Shark, Gardiner may be the top UFA defenseman available and could easily command an AAV north of $6 million.

But none of this Gardiner talk is news, really. He’s been a whipping boy for a while, and it’s been assumed he’ll be a casualty of the Leafs’ cap crunch. The real question to ask after Monday, however, is whether the crowd’s reaction is bigger than just Gardiner hate. Maybe it represents a fan base declaring the honeymoon over, a fan base realizing its star-studded team has exited the playoffs in Round 1 two straight years and currently projects to draw its nemesis, the Bruins, in the 2019 playoffs. The fans were mad at Gardiner – but perhaps also using him as the figurehead for a team that’s lost five of its past seven games.

“The good thing about our fans: they’re passionate, they want us to win, they want us to play way harder than that,” said coach Mike Babcock. “And we want to play harder than that for them. I think we’ve done a good job over time here to be a real good team to watch, and we weren’t good enough to watch. They paid their money, and they’re allowed to say what they want. The bottom line is (Gardiner’s) an important player for us. We need him.”

It’s rapidly becoming clear the Leafs need a lot more than just a confident Gardiner if they want to make post-season noise and brave the Atlantic Division gauntlet this spring, however. The need for a right-shot blueliner has been apparent all year, and nothing’s changed in that regard. General manager Kyle Dubas is swimming in tradable assets, from first-round picks to an AHL squad loaded with appealing prospects, so he has the opportunity to take a run at a major catch such as Alex Pietrangelo or a depth addition such as Radko Gudas.

Again, though, that’s not really news. We’ve known who the Leafs are since the summer: an exciting, flawed team with a stacked forward corps and one of the weaker right-side blueline groups in the league. What’s becoming surprisingly apparent as we reach the dog days of winter, however, is that the Leafs need more pushback among the forward group. Skill trumps blunt force in today’s NHL, no doubt, and the Leafs have been prudent adhering to that principle in their roster construction, but they simply got outmuscled Monday.

“Any team in this league, you don’t come ready to play, you don’t play the way you expect to play, compete, win some battles and win some races, own the inside of the ice, every team can beat anyone in this league,” said center John Tavares.

Trench warfare doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but it still exists, particularly in the playoffs. The defending Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, have speed and skill to burn but mix in some brawn from the likes of Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly, too. Might the Leafs, then, consider taking a look at someone like the Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds, a prime UFA rental target?

The Leafs’ problems go beyond Jake Gardiner. This is a very good team but also a clearly flawed team. It’s time for Dubas to do the hard work, lest he risk wasting another season with an early-round playoff defeat.


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