Opening Statements

At any sporting event the fans have their right to boo whoever or whatever they wish whether it be naive or not. They paid for that expensive ticket with their hard-earned money and if they’re not pleased with the product on the ice, they can voice their displeasure. Sure, it can be petty and rather unjustified in some cases, but at least it shows the fans care and want their team to win. In cases like this could it run targeted players like out of town? Possibly.

In the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Jake Gardiner, he hears it from the fans for just about everything. Whether it be for a bad playoff memory, or one weak play in January, Gardiner has turned into the whipping boy of Leafs fans. So, there are Leaf fans who hate on Gardiner and think he’s bad at his job, and that’s fine – some people legitimately think the earth is flat too.

Since his acquisition in 2011 and growth into one of the most polarizing players in league history, Gardiner definitely doesn’t get the love he deserves in Toronto. But that’s why I’m here Leaf fans. To tell and prove that you’re underappreciating Gardiner as an NHL defenseman and what he brings to your team night in and night out by constantly outweighing the actually small number of negatives to a greater number of positives.

I’ll even take it one step further:

Jake Gardiner is not only one of the Leafs top defenseman, he’s one of the better defensemen in the NHL.

The Case

Back in 2011 when the Leafs acquired Gardiner, they were a mess. Unfortunatly for Gardiner, he was thrusted right into this mess as a higher-end prospect with expectations. As the Leafs front office gutted the entire team through the rebuild, Gardiner worked his way up to the big club, and remained through all of this. When Gardiner was young, and the Leafs were terrible, he had his share of mistakes that didn’t’ t go unnoticed. To this day Gardiner will still make the odd mistake. Just ask the fans.

But like many good prospects, Gardiner grew into a very good defenseman at the NHL level. He’s one of the league’s better skaters with excellent speed and good hands who likes to shoot the puck. Bread and butter in today’s NHL based around youth and speed. He’s consistent offensive threat from the back end for Leafs coach Mike Babcock and his staff rely upon on a nightly basis. Babcock’s offensive design revolves around defensemen like Gardiner’s abilities to generate offense from the point, and carry the puck into the offensive zone adequately with that speed. That same skating ability combined with good footwork also assists him in the defensive zone:

While doing all of this, Gardiner plays a high-risk, high-reward game. He’s the gun slinging quarterback who will throw his interceptions. Babcock is a smart coach and he knows this. He doesn’t just keep rolling Gardiner out there for 21 minutes a night for fun, or because he has no one else to play. I mean the Leafs just traded for Jake Muzzin too for crying out loud. Babcock knowingly accepts the type of player Gardiner is will take the all good with the odd dosage of bad. Something Leafs Nation just can’t seem to accept. Asking, expecting and hoping for the bad to entirely go away from Gardiner’s game would be changing who he is as a hockey player and subsequently taking away his effectiveness along with the vast amount of offense he generates.

It’s the item of confirmation bias that has Leafs fans minds all wrong about Gardiner. Confirmation bias is defined as the process where people notice and remember information that confirms what they already think.

This term is the exact reason why the fans proclaim Gardiner to be a bad defenseman. Because the stats don’t create this narrative. They’re actually quite good as you’ll see below. Instead, Leafs fans watch Gardiner with the pre-existing idea in their head that all he does is hurt the team defensively, and then they nitpick his performance until they find even the slightest taint in his performance. In the meantime, they completely ignore anything good he does on the ice (which is actually way more than you think). Confirmation bias is just how we operate as human beings unfortunately. With the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. Hey, I’m guilty for it too. Just not on this topic.

Now consider these factors mentioned above with your now understanding and recognition of confirmation bias:

  1. Gardiner plays 21+ minutes a night for the Leafs. Any defenseman playing that many minutes controls the puck a lot, therefore they’re going to lose it more often than other players. See the Sharks’ Erik Karlsson.
  2. Gardiner is not only a smooth skater, but a smooth looking skater (there’s a difference) making his speed and agility look effortless. Combine that with his soft hands, it makes his giveaways and turnovers when they happen look rather casual which isn’t a good look.
  3. Like other puck moving and offensive defensemen, he takes gambles on plays and situations that don’t always work out. That’s what players of Gardiner’s type must deal with in order to be successful and effective in this league. Live by the Jake, die by the Jake.

And yes, Gardiner absolutely still has his moments where he’s too soft on the puck in his own end. I’ll still be the first to tell you that he has flaws as a player. But who doesn’t? Even the golden boy Auston Matthews who can do no wrong costed the Leafs a game with a brutal third period turnover against the Minnesota Wild earlier this season. Or, take this brutal turnover from LA Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and former Leafs’ defenseman Carlo Coliacovo take on it:

But you all turned a blind eye to that. Whatever way you look at it though, Jake Gardiner is one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top defenseman. Even with the recent addition of Jake Muzzin.

The Evidence

By now, it’s not a complex premise on the table here. I see something different about Jake Gardiner than the consensus beliefs of Leafs fans.

So, its now time to keep your feelings and hold these facts:

Just 16 NHL defensemen had 50+ points last season. Gardiner was one of them, and he logged among the most 5v5 minutes of the group of 16. He finished fourth in 5v5 scoring by defensemen

Also last year, Gardiner allowed the least amount of goals and shots against while on the ice for the Leafs. That being out of Leafs defensemen who played at least 40 games.

Gardiner is also an advanced stat darling. Over the past six seasons, there have been six defensemen for the Leafs who have played 2000+ minutes. Those guys being Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, Morgan Rielly, and Dion Phaneuf. Gardiner leads that entire group in PPG (points per game), Corsi For (shot attempts for), Corsi Rel (shot attempts relative to his teammates) and ironically enough even though it’s now a misleading stat, plus-minus. Take that minus five in Boston.

And looking just at the last three full seasons up until today, the Leafs have a plus 30 goal differential and score 54% of their goals when Gardiner is on the ice. In that same time-frame the Leafs consistently ranked near the bottom shot attempts against. Gardiner has played in 265+ games during that period. When he’s been on the ice, the Leafs have gotten 51% of the shot attempts in the game, 50% of the total shots, and 54% of the total goals scored.

Coincidence? No, just a very good hockey player.

The point? Jake Gardiner has played a substantial role in his teams’ success since he’s become a member of the Leafs. Among the 16 defensemen with 50+ points and the fourth rank among defensemen for 5v5 points last season. Leads his team allowing the lowest clip of shots and goals against while on the ice. Leads all Leafs defensemen over the last six seasons in PPG, Corsi and plus-minus.

A true cornerstone for an organization on the blueline. There’s your evidence.

Closing Argument

After all those numbers, if you still don’t think Gardiner is among the league’s better defenceman, you’re simply wrong. Facts and evidence remain defeated over a fan’s opinion.

Gardiner’s skills will be highly sought after on July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. As one of the longest serving Leafs on the current roster, he might not be back with the team, but not because they don’t want him. It’ll be because they might not be able to fit him under the current salary cap with all of their impending free agents. At 29-years old and in his prime Gardiner might need to go elsewhere to get his deserved payday.

Gardiner is popular among his teammates too. They are all play a role in the team’s ups and downs over the course of a season and into the playoffs.

With all this being said on the topic of Gardiner, it’s still impossible to please everyone. It’s also pretty much impossible to convince people nowadays who already have their mind made up with 10,000+ more people on the internet ready to certify anyone’s beliefs. Just see the flat earth takes.

We live in a world today where people aren’t interested in learning and hearing new information on the opposing side of an argument. Instead, people look specifically for others who will reinforce their pre-set beliefs and opinions.

I doubt I’ll change all of the confirmation biased filled minds on the subject of Gardiner. Many of us just get stuck in our ways. Hopefully he at least gets viewed in a bit better light after reading this column.

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