Leafs’ Gardiner earning high praise

At 21, Jake Gardiner is already averaging more than 20 minutes a night on the Maple Leafs’ blue line. Knowing his pedigree, Gardiner’s precocious poise should come as no surprise.

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was the general manager in Anaheim when the Ducks drafted Jake Gardiner in 2008. So Burke knew the young defenseman would be a quality asset for the Maple Leafs’ future when he acquired Gardiner from the Ducks in exchange for François Beauchemin back in February.

After just more than 20 games into the youngster’s NHL career, that future appears to be now.

Gardiner has suited up for all but two of Toronto’s games this season and has looked like anything but a rookie. Before this season, he had only 10 games of pro experience — all last season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

The 21-year-old was expected to start, if not finish, the season with the Marlies. But a strong preseason earned him a roster spot among the Leafs’ top six. Entering Saturday night’s game against Boston, Gardiner was averaging more than 20 minutes a night — third among rookie defensemen and fifth on the Toronto roster. On Nov. 25, Gardiner logged a season-high 28:34 against the Stars in Dallas.

"He plays with a lot of confidence for such a young guy," Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson told Mapleleafs.com. "That’s the big thing. He knows he’s good. He doesn’t hesitate to go out and do what he thinks is the best move in that situation."

He’s not alone. Praise directed at Gardiner has centered on the apparent ice in his veins in the midst of high-flying NHL action. His veteran-like poise has led his teammates to dub him "Silver Stick," referencing the gift players receive when they reach the 1,000-game plateau.

"The scary part is, he doesn’t get tired," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson told the Toronto Sun. "The more we play him, the less he sweats.

"I have had some young defensemen, but none that seemed to play so cool and calm."

Gardiner started building up that steely exterior on a rink his father built on Lake Minnetonka in his native Minnesota. Year in and year out, John Gardiner cleared the frozen surface of snow for his son, who spent many days honing his craft on it until he was 17.

"He does not get rattled," the elder Gardiner noted to the Sun. "He knows if he makes a mistake on a shift, it is not going to bother him for the next week. I think that’s why he has survived. He has always had that. There is not a whole lot that bothers him, even off the ice. He’s a pretty spirited kid, and never really lets anything get to him."

From Minnesota, Gardiner went on to play collegiately at the University of Wisconsin. He spent three years with the Badgers before joining the Marlies late last season.

Gardiner’s success in one of the league’s biggest markets is especially impressive.

"Being 21 and jumping into a spotlight like this, it’s never easy," John-Michael Liles, who joined the Avalanche as a 22-year-old rookie fresh out of Michigan State, told The Globe and Mail. "It’s a different world. At the same time, when you’re that young, you kind of go into it (a little naive). But he came in with the right mentality, obviously turned quite a few heads and he’s been great for us."

Northeast Notes

The return of Canadiens D Andrei Markov is on hold for at least the next three weeks. The Habs’ star will undergo minor arthroscopic knee surgery to clear out what GM Pierre Gauthier called "debris." … The Bruins followed up a miserable October with a sparkling November. The defending Cup champs went 12-0-1 through the second month of the season, outscoring opponents 59-25 in the process. It was the first time they’d earned points in 13 straight games since 1983 and marked the first time since 1969 they’d gone a month without a regulation loss. … Finally healthy, Milan Michalek is delivering what the Senators hoped for when they acquiring the Czech winger in the Dany Heatley trade. With a co-league leading 16 goals to his credit, Michalek is on pace to easily surpass his previous best of 26, set in 2006-07 with the Sharks.

A report in an Edmonton newspaper suggested Sabres G Ryan Miller had spoken to management about looking into a possible trade. The Michigan native refuted the notion that he wanted to leave the only team he’s known. "I’ve never in my time here talked to Lindy, Darcy or ownership about a trade. And they’ve never come to me asking for any options," he told the team’s official website. "I have a long history here. I feel like I’ve grown up here. This is where I want to win. There’s no better place to win. I’m proud of being a Sabre."