The Jake Gardiner talk in Toronto has gained steam the past week as the Maple Leafs’ losses pile up.
The push to have the offensive defenceman summoned from the American Hockey League has mostly come from fans and media.
However, the source for the latest plea to Leafs management came courtesy of Ben Hankinson, Gardiner’s agent, who took to Twitter late Tuesday night following Toronto’s 5-2 road loss to Winnipeg and wrote #FreeJakeGardiner.
The 22-year-old Gardiner played two games for the Leafs earlier this season after spending more than a month sidelined with a concussion but clearly wasn’t ready for a return to the NHL after impressing last season.
He has steadily improved under head coach Dallas Eakins with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season and has 10 goals and 31 points in 41 games. Eakins told reporters on Wednesday that Gardiner is "absolutely" ready to contribute at the NHL level.
"I don’t want him happy to be here [in the AHL]. I want him to be clawing to get out of this dressing room and back to the NHL," Eakins said.
But it isn't Eakins’s decision.
"It’s our job to make sure the timing is right and he is performing at a level where he is too good for the American Hockey League," said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle of Gardiner after Wednesday’s practice.
Leafs blue-liners Korbinian Holzer and Mike Kostka, who played for the Marlies earlier in the season during the NHL lockout, have struggled of late and are minus-8 and minus-7, respectively, on the season. While Holzer could be sent to the AHL without having to clear waivers, that isn’t the case for Kostka.
Plus, the Leafs have veteran defencemen Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles eager to return to the lineup after being healthy scratches for a month or longer.
Gardiner, though, isn’t the only player that appears deserving of a call and forced to bide his time in the AHL. Four others are featured below.
BRETT CONNOLLY, RW: The Tampa Bay Lightning chose not to invite the 20-year-old native of Prince George, B.C., to training camp in late January after Connolly had 15 points with the team in 68 games last season. General manager Steve Yzerman was aware of Connolly’s improved play in the AHL this season with Syracuse and wanted him to play a lot of minutes. Connolly, having scored 33 points in 36 games for the Crunch to that point, has continued to work at his game and kept up the pace, adding 19 points in 23 contests since for a total of 24 goals and 52 points in 59 contests.
NINO NIEDEREITER, RW: Like Connolly, the 20-year-old right-winger wasn’t invited to training camp, the New York Islanders keeping the Swiss forward with Bridgeport (Ct.) of the AHL despite the fact Niederreiter was top-three in the league in goals and 12th in the league in points at the time. He did have just one point and a minus-29 rating in 55 games on Long Island last season. Nonetheless, a frustrated Niederreiter requested a trade, on the advice of his agent Andy Rufener, but Islanders GM Garth Snow hasn’t budged. Perhaps he realizes what he has in Niederreiter, who led the Sound Tigers in scoring through Wednesday with 43 points on 25 goals and 18 assists in 57 games.
CHRIS BOURQUE, LW: The Boston native is back in Providence, RI, with the AHL Bruins following some inconsistent play with the parent club. Bourque, 27, managed only one goal and four points in 18 games while also seeing time on the second power-play unit. He could return to Boston later in the season but has shone in the AHL, where he led the league in scoring last season with 93 points for Hershey. In 35 games with Providence during the NHL lockout, Bourque collected eight goals and 31 points.
ZAC DALPE, C: There appears to be a bright future for the 23-year-old right-winger in Carolina, where Dalpe opened the season on the second scoring line with Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner. However, he hasn’t been able to stick with the Hurricanes on two occasions (two points in seven games) and will work towards a third call-up with the Charlotte (N.C.) Checkers of the AHL. In 46 games in the AHL this season, Dalpe has 19 goals, 38 points and leads the team with a plus-15 rating.