2008 prospects: Jake Gardiner

By DJ Powers

Position: Defense
2007-08 Team: Minnetonka High School
Shoots: Left
Ht/Wt: 6’2/178 lbs.
DOB: 7/4/90

One word that is so often heard around the scouting community is potential. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a Minnesota high school player eligible for this year’s draft that possesses more of it than Jake Gardiner.

Gardiner has just completed an excellent career at Minnetonka High School, where he served as one of the team’s captains. He helped guide the Skippers to a Section 6AA Championship game appearance and a gold division Schwan Cup tournament title. Gardiner led Minnetonka with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists), averaging 1.92 points per game. Gardiner was a finalist for the prestigious Mr. Hockey award.

In the summer of 2007, Gardiner was a member of Team USA’s U-18 Select team that participated in the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Like many Minnesota high school players, Gardiner was courted heavily by the USHL. One team in particular, the Des Moines Buccaneers, had invited the Deerhaven, MN native to play for them last year, but he declined.

“I tried out for the team and made the team,” Gardiner told Hockey’s Future in a recent interview. “They wanted me to play for them this year, but I decided not to because I wanted to stay back here and play with my brother (Max) and my friends. I knew that we had a good team here this year and I thought that we would be able to compete for a state title this year. So I just decided to stay here because it was a better fit for me.”

Gardiner, who will be attending the University of Wisconsin this fall, was also heavily recruited by several other WCHA teams, most notably the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato. The Ohio State University and Harvard University were other non-WCHA schools that had also expressed some interest in the young rearguard. Gardiner said that he chose Wisconsin mainly because of the coaching staff and the fact that he felt that the school was the perfect fit for him, particularly in his development as a defenseman.

“I think going to Wisconsin next year will help me out a lot in learning the position, working with Coach Osiecki and Coach Eaves. Coach Osiecki is a great defensive coach, and I just think going there will help me. I’m more of an offensive guy and I saw that Wisconsin is more defensive, and I think they’re bringing in some more offensive guys to kind of balance that out. So I saw that as a big plus for me.”

“Wisconsin plays more of the pro-style game where they focus on defense first, so I think that’ll be great for Jake to learn from those guys and play at that level,” said Minnetonka head coach Brian Urick. “I just think that it’s the perfect fit for Jake and I think that he’ll do well there. I’m just excited to see him develop as a player because he’s such a good kid.”

Talent analysis

Gardiner is a versatile offensive defenseman with size, quick feet and great hands. He was quickly able to adjust and adapt to playing on the blueline after having played much of his career as a forward. Interestingly enough, while Gardiner may be headed to Wisconsin this fall, it is the head coach of a rival WCHA school that initially recommended that he move to the defensive position.

“Actually, it was in the last game of last season (2006-07) in the playoffs,” Gardiner explained.  “We were playing Chaska, and in the last period my coach (Ken Pauly, who now coaches at Benilde-St. Margaret’s) decided to put me on defense just to get some more ice time because we had fewer defensemen, and maybe I could go back there and see what happens. So I tried that. Coach Jutting (head coach at Minnesota State-Mankato) was at that game and he liked how I played and thought that I see the ice a lot better and suggested it. I played on defense last summer and I really succeeded at it. Then I played with the USA 18 team in Slovakia. When I went over there, I was just like ‘wow’ and thought it (defensive position) was the right fit for me and just kind of stuck with it.”

Though he is still learning and growing into his new position, Gardiner has already demonstrated remarkably sound and smart positional play. He utilizes his speed and hockey instincts to play the defensive position effectively. It is further enhanced by his tremendous on-ice awareness, and his ability to read and react to developing plays accordingly. Depending upon how well his development progresses at the collegiate level, Gardiner could eventually blossom into a complete defenseman who is equally adept on both sides of the puck. As Urick explains, it is that growth that will greatly determine Gardiner’s future success.

“Jake’s defensive zone positioning and understanding of playing on the defensive side of forwards down in his own zone below the top of the circles are definitely areas that he’ll need to improve. I think that’s going to be a key for him. And that’s hard for any high school player to do that. As Jake goes to the next level, taking one-on-ones will be a key too because the game was so slow for him at the high school level this year and he was never really challenged. He’s going to have to learn to play the body more and learn a lot more about body positioning. It’s already a great start for him because he’s got that 6’2 frame and he’s just going to get stronger. So I think that’s going to come.”

Gardiner’s skating is one of his best attributes. He is very agile and has tremendously quick feet that can be seen particularly in his transitioning. He combines long, fluid strides with good pivots and explosive speed.

Not only does he have great poise and patience with the puck, but he has shown that he can be quite creative with it too. His outstanding puck distribution skills also make him a very good quarterback on the power play. Another standout feature about Gardiner is his shot. He possesses a very hard shot with a quick release, and has no trouble getting pucks to the net. He’ll also shoot as often as the opportunity presents itself.

At 6’2/178 lbs, Gardiner has good size and strength that he also uses to his advantage, both offensively and defensively. He can finish his checks very well. Where Gardiner is particularly dangerous are in the areas in front of the net and along the boards. He is strong on his skates and is a difficult player to move off of the puck. And coupled with his size, speed and long reach, he can also be just as tough to beat. As his body matures, Gardiner will become an even more dominant and effective force on the blueline.

So how does Gardiner describe himself?

“I’m definitely more of an offensive defenseman. I think that my speed is pretty much my big asset that I use. So I’d say that I’m a speedy offensive defenseman.”

Gardiner lists Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche as his favorite NHL player, but cites two defensemen – Brent Burns of the Minnesota Wild and Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey — as the players that he tries to pattern his style of play after.

“I like Brent Burns. He’s quick and likes to jump up into plays. I’ve watched films on Paul Coffey and I think he’s really great.”

Two attributes that have served Gardiner quite well at the high school level that should continue to do so when he arrives in Madison, WI later this summer are his quiet intensity and his unwavering commitment to being the best player that he can be. Part of that commitment can be seen in his dedication to his conditioning, both on and off the ice.

“I’ve been working with Kevin Ziegler a lot at Velocity Hockey in Eden Prairie (MN), and lately he’s been working with me on my leg strength because my legs are kind of small right now,” said Gardiner of his workout regimen. “He thinks that if I strengthen my legs, I’ll become even more explosive than I am now. I’ve worked really hard over the last couple of summers to become faster and stronger and I think that’s paid off a lot. Last year, I would do skating clinics every Wednesday morning and work on specific drills like on my edges. I’ve been doing pliametrics, squats and stuff like that too that have helped make me faster. Right now, I’m skating probably three or four times a week and lifting three times a week.”

“The one thing that all of the scouts kept asking me about Jake was his desire or his fire or tenacity because he’s such as reserved, soft-spoken kid,” said Urick. “The thing about Jake is he is such a competitor and he’s the hardest working kid at our practices all year. Every practice he just competed his butt off and that’s probably the one thing that a lot of people don’t know about him. He’s a lot more competitive and driven than what is shown because he doesn’t show it with his emotions.”

Like virtually all highly-regarded players eligible for the draft each year, Gardiner has had to contend with the seemingly constant attention by scouts. While he takes it all in stride, Gardiner credits Urick for helping him through the process that Urick himself went through over a decade ago prior to being selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1996 Entry Draft.

“He went through the exact same process with scouts and stuff before he was drafted,” said Gardiner. “He told me to just relax, have fun, and that he would deal with the scouts after the game and stuff like that. So he’s been a really big help to me. When I’m out on the ice, I really don’t think about it. I try to have fun, just zone out the people outside of the rink and just play my game. Off the ice, there’ve been people talking to me this year. I try to have fun with it all and try not to get too nervous (laughs).”

Outlook for the draft

Ranked 23rd among North American skater on Central Scouting’s final rankings, Gardiner is the highest ranked draft-eligible player coming out of the Minnesota high schools this year. He is projected to go late first round.