He’s the Toronto Maple Leafs’ media darling. Writers love him, fans love him, his teammates love him–with good reason, undoubtedly.
This season Gardiner burst onto the scene in Toronto, proving to be Toronto’s most consistent, and arguably best blueliner of the 2011-2012 regular season. He displayed an uncanny knack for moving the puck from his own end of the ice up into the neutral and attacking zones.
That, coupled with his remarkable passing abilities and solid, defensively responsible play and on-ice awareness have Leafs fans salivating at the young gun’s potential.
Is he, however, Toronto’s best young defenseman? That much remains up for debate.
His main competition is Toronto’s first round selection (and fifth overall) in the 2012 NHL entry draft, Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors, who play in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
Is Morgan Rielly as good or better than Gardiner as of Sept. 3? Absolutely not. This article is referring more so to the future , three to five years down the road.
Before suffering a season-ending injury just 18 games into the 2011-2012 junior season, Rielly was regarded by many as a potential top three pick in this year’s draft–yes, even ahead of Mikhail Grigorenko and Alex Galchenyuk–along with Russian super-prospect Nail Yakupov and stud defenseman Ryan Murray.
It isn’t all that hard to see why, either. At just about every level he’s played at, Rielly has made puck-handling look like a walk in the park, and this is a defenseman we’re talking about. His skating is just about as natural as it gets as well. His playmaking abilities, skating and awareness have drawn comparisons to the likes of Leafs legend Borje Salming.
While his playing style is nearly identical to that of Gardiner, his hockey IQ and potential may allow him to not only be just as good as Gardiner, but better after a few seasons with the big club.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans, having both Gardiner and Rielly in blue and white can be nothing short of a comforting thought.
Jon is Rant Sports’ lead blogger for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Feel free to comment in the comments section below and follow him on twitter @RantLeafsWriter.