Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Gardiner inherits big minutes with Dion Phaneuf out of the lineup

The Toronto Maple Leafs were without captain Dion Phaneuf last night as he served the first of a two-game suspension. In his absence, 23-year-old defenceman Jake Gardiner inherited big minutes on the team’s back-end, finishing the game having played 26:10 through three periods. How did it turn out? Well, the Leafs lost the game by a score of 3-1. But many have dubbed Toronto’s effort as one of the club’s best performances of the season despite the loss.

It’s not crazy to believe that in order to get the most out of a player, that player needs to be on the ice as often as possible – get into the game – truly feel the game’s pace. Last night, playing alongside Morgan Rielly for the most part, Jake Gardiner had a chance to embrace big minutes, be deeply involved – and the end result was positive. He finished the game with an assist on the Leafs only goal, and a +/- rating of 0.

The Leafs could not find a way to claim victory in what was a taste of their own medicine outcome, losing a game that they probably should have won. The Buds have been criticized for winning too many games they should’ve lost this season, and last night was the reverse. All things have a way of balancing themselves out, you’d think, and maybe that’s what has occurred for the Leafs this month. Toronto is now 2-3 in December, with wins in the games they’ve given up the most shots against – which could have to do with their inclination to sit back on leads and allow more shots under favourable circumstances. But it also has a lot to do with the team’s inability to perform at top speed on a nightly basis. Last night’s performance earned the Leafs praise because they were moving their feet quicker than usual. Defenceman Jake Gardiner – one of the NHL’s best skaters – definitely helps bolster team speed when he’s on the ice.

The Leafs must decide to re-sign their captain or plan for a future without him, and they only have months to come to an agreement. Phaneuf’s contract expires at the end of this season, at which point he may sign a new contract wherever he pleases, beginning July 1st.

According to The Fourth Period, Phaneuf and the Leafs are talking contract this week.