Jake Gardiner is quietly asserting himself as a top pair defenceman. The 25 year old has earned praise from Head Coach Mike Babcock and is on pace for a career high in points. The Minnesota native is on an extremely team friendly contract while playing the best hockey of his career. Gardiner is one of the most underrated players in the game today. He combines his strong skating with good puck retrieval skills and is capable of making good passes out of the defensive zone.
For any of the following stats in the article, they are from 2013-2016. This is because they are consistent with the HERO and WARRIOR charts and it excludes Gardiner’s rookie season as well as the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season. Stats not from this time period will be shown accordingly. The Corsi stats will be score and venue adjusted. Data comes from Corsica Hockey and War on Ice. HERO and WARRIOR charts courtesy of Domenic Galamini can be found here. They are great tools to get the conversation started and get a general idea of where a specific player succeeds.
Acknowledging Jake Gardiner as a top pairing defenceman might come as a surprise to most. Those who follow traditional analyses focus on the eye test, which has its shortcomings, will argue Gardiner is at best a fourth defenceman. There are few teams (Calgary Flames, LA Kings) where Jake Gardiner would not be on the top pair. On the vast majority however, a case can be made that he is a solid number two defenceman or a borderline number one. Gardiner is one of the premier defencemen in his own end. His calm demeanor and strong skating ability aid him in flourishing as one of the league’s best shutdown defenceman.
Over the past year, I have come to the conclusion that Jake Gardiner is elite defensively. Just take a quick look at his Corsi Against/60 Relative to Team since 2013: Gardiner is second, sandwiched between Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie both of the Calgary Flames. Take a gander at his hextally plot from War on Ice:
As you can see, with Gardiner on the ice, the Maple Leafs give up much fewer shots on net.
You can easily see here what I echoed earlier: Gardiner is elite at suppressing shots (CA/60 REL TM).
My next goal was to determine other defencemen who were elite defensively and had a good offensive game at even strength. I chose Anton Stralman, Marc Edouard Vlasic, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
As you can see, Gardiner is within the realm of these players in regards to team relative stats. From 2013-present we can see his CF% relative and CA/60 relative are both most similar to Anton Stralman and his CF/60 relative is most identical to Vlasic. This isn’t to suggest he is as good or better than these players; it indicates Gardiner’s defensive impact is as good as some of the most adept defencemen in the game today. When you take a look at raw Corsi stats, the picture painted is a little different. Gardiner has the lowest score adjusted CF%, the worst CA/60, and the second worst CF/60. The effects here can be placed on Gardiner being in Randy Carlyle’s poor system and some potential growing pains as he developed. Under Mike Babcock, arguably the best coach in the league, Gardiner has seen his game improve in each department. His CF/60 is most similar to Stralman and his CA/60 similar to Ekman-Larsson. Granted it is a limited sample, but thus far the early returns in Corsi relative to team are akin to Vlasic. Vlasic was hailed as an underrated defenceman characterized by his defensive prowess for many years. It wasn’t until his selection to Team Canada for the Olympics that he became widely known. By advanced stats, Gardiner is a top pairing defenceman. If Gardiner can keep his gains from this season and slightly improve upon his point production as the Leafs get better, the Maple Leafs might just have the number one defenceman they covet.
Going back to the WARRIOR charts, the player that jumped out to be most resembling Gardiner was Oliver Ekman-Larsson. OEL, for short, is lauded as one of the top young defenceman in the game. Some argue due to his lack of exposure in Arizona, he is the most underrated player in the game. Others, acknowledge his skill level and effect on play, and this leads them to conclude he is a true number one defenceman. I would agree with that assessment. This past September TSN rated Ekman-Larsson amongst the top fifty players in the game and the 12th best defenceman. Gardiner is not considered a top paring defenceman by the majority of the mainstream media. They tend to focus on his big mistakes leading them to not consider him to be as good of a defender in addition to the poor on ice success of the Toronto Maple Leafs. This clouds public perception as to what Gardiner truly is. At even strength, what really separates Oliver from Jake?
What immediately jumps out to you is that Ekman-Larsson has a small edge in points/60 whereas Gardiner edges him out in CF/60 Relative to Team. The rest look fairly similar and both exemplify what an elite defensive defenceman’s CA/60 Relative to Team would look like. At even strength, the difference between there effectiveness is minimal. You could argue Gardiner is slightly better defensively and Ekman-Larsson offensively, and I wouldn’t argue much.
The largest disparity between Gardiner and Ekman-Larsson occurs on the powerplay(PP). Gardiner doesn’t have all that large of a sample. The majority of his minutes have been on the second pair over this time compared to Oliver getting first pair minutes on the powerplay. Ekman-Larsson’s 4.2 points/60 is very good relative to his peers whereas Gardiner’s is 3.36, 44th out of 53 defencemen who have played a minimum of 450 minutes on the PP. His 27 points over the same period pale in comparison to OEL’s 67. Ekman-Larsson also plays almost twice as much as Gardiner and had the benefit of playing alongside powerplay specialist Keith Yandle for a year and a half. While Gardiner has made some strides looking strictly at 2015, it is a small sample but the limited returns have been positive. Gardiner isn’t a powerplay quarterback, but his smooth skating and good passing ability make him worthy of being a number two defenceman on the powerplay.
Gardiner hasn’t gotten much penalty killing time thus far in his career which is strange because he’s good at defence. A dynamic skater, Gardiner is the type of player you want on the penalty kill. He is very good at retrieving loose pucks. Ekman-Larsson on the other hand, has received ample time on the penalty kill until this year. He is only averaging half a minute as opposed to the two and a half he received in years past. With the departure of Phaneuf, it will be interesting to see if Babcock elects to use Gardiner in a greater role on the penalty kill or give the young defenceman more ice time to gain a more accurate assessment.
This brings us to the question: Just where does Jake Gardiner rank amongst defenceman. If we consider Oliver Ekman-Larsson as a top 15 defenceman, where do we put Gardiner who only lacks penalty kill experience and powerplay efficiency. I believe a case can be made that Gardiner is amongst the top 20 defenceman at even strength. If Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Vlasic are good comparables, Gardiner definitely ranks somewhere between 20-40 amongst defenceman (personally think around 25-30). At the very least, take comfort in knowing the Maple Leafs have one piece of there top two on defence locked up for cheap.
At 5 on 5, there are few defencemen that make a defensive impact larger than Gardiner. He has asserted himself as a top pairing defenceman this season and has potential to continue growing into a true number one. Babcock will need to maximize his strengths and play him on the penalty kill more often. Jake Gardiner has many similarities with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a near-consensus number one defenceman. His overall defensive impact this season has been very similar to defensive gem Marc Edouard Vlasic. You won’t hear about him too often from the mainstream media, and it’s unlikely he ever gets the recognition he deserves and that’s okay because Kyle Dubas and the rest of the Leafs management understand the value he provides. Jake Gardiner is elite defensively; Leaf fans may be looking at there very own Ekman-Larsson or Vlasic that will play an integral role for years to come.