Jake Gardiner brings one of the highest risk-reward games to Toronto's depth chart, but early on in the season, the young defenseman seems to have been usurped by rookie Stuart Percy, who counters with smarts and mobility. On the morning of Toronto's home tilt against Colorado, the big question was whether Gardiner was going to draw in after he had been scratched for the Leafs' big win in New York over the Rangers. Coach Randy Carlyle was cagey after the morning skate, saying it was a “coach's decision” (but you're the coach!) and that the final answer would come after warm-ups. But one thing is clear: Percy is making it hard for the Leafs to take him out.
“It was no secret in our organization that we felt Stuart Percy had hockey sense and could move the puck,” Carlyle said. “As long as he continues to show the ability to play at a high level, we know there will be peaks and valleys.”
The coach went on to note that the NHL gets harder once the season really ramps up and that will be a true test for Percy, but for now the kid appears to be doing just ducky. In three games with the Buds, the 25th overall selection in 2011 has been pretty steady: He has an assist in every contest he has played and logged no less than 20 minutes and no more than 20:21 in any of his appearances. Did the game-losing goal go off his skate in the season opener? Well yeah, but that sort of thing could happen to literally any defenseman – including the Duncan Keiths and Drew Doughtys of the world.
What Percy has shown is a calmness and a sense of purpose in all facets of the game, from 5-on-5 to the penalty kill and power play. He's not afraid to go deep into enemy territory and is rather matter-of-fact with the matter for a 21-year-old rookie.
“With the forwards slowing up at the blueline and I'm the only one with speed, I have to go get it,” Percy said. “I did it the other night in New York: I had to chip one in and get it on the power play. There are certain situations like that where even being a defenseman, I have to go get it, especially on the power play.”
Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Oakville, Percy listened when his dad told him to “shoot when you should shoot and pass when you should pass,” which sounds simple enough but can often beleaguer even NHLers sometimes. The youngster plans on keeping his foot firmly on the gas pedal and as long as he is consistent, the Leafs will be more than happy to keep him around. That doesn't bode well for Gardiner, who signed a five year, $20.2 million contract extension in the summer, but the season is still very early. Carlyle bluntly stated that Gardiner needed to play better in order to get out of the press box, but when will that next opportunity come? In a way, it's a nice problem for the Leafs to have, as long as Gardiner doesn't become too alienated or stagnant. After all, it's his swashbuckling style from the back end that got him that contract extension in the first place.
“We have a healthy competition to stay in the lineup,” Percy said. “And that's always good for the team, knowing that the team is going to get everyone's best efforts.”
Rolling seven blueliners would seem to have a benefit as long as the Maple Leafs are winning and showdowns against the Avs and Red Wings this week will serve as stiff tests to that theory. As for Percy, the local kid has been deluged by messages from well-wishers and he hopes to answer a bunch of them tomorrow on the off-day. When he gets back on the ice, however, it's business as usual.
“It's a battle every day,” he said. “And it's a lot of fun to be here every day to try and get better and be a part of the group.”
As long as Toronto can find the right balance, that's a great thing.