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Maple Leafs unearth Silver bullet for defence

Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Abelimages/Getty Images

It often isn't easy being the rookie on an NHL team.

But if all the ribbing and practical jokes from the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting to Jake Gardiner, he isn't letting on.

Only 21 and in his first full pro season, Gardiner wasn't expected to make the team out of training camp in September. Since then, however, he's been climbing the depth chart seemingly every week, pushing himself ahead of some of the Leafs' more experienced defencemen.

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Heading into Friday's game against the Dallas Stars, Gardiner was entrenched in Toronto's top four on the blueline, averaging more than 20 minutes a night in the month of November. And the more success he has, the harder time he gets from teammates.

"We just make fun of him so much," said John-Michael Liles, 30, the senior member of the blueline. "He has to make sure he's careful of everything he does."

"That's just part of the territory," Cody Franson said. "When you're the young guy, you always get picked on a little bit."

Listening in on the conversation, Luke Schenn decided to chime in, offering up the latest nickname they've stuck the mild-mannered Gardiner with.

"Everyone calls him Silver Stick," Schenn said. "When you get to 1,000 games [in the NHL] you get a silver stick. He just acts like he's got 1,000 under him already."

"That's the joke," Franson said. "He's calm and cool out there like he's been in the league that long."

"Nothing fazes him," Schenn said.

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"Guys chirp him, but he just lets it brush off," Franson said. "So we just keep calling him Silver."

All kidding aside, at this rate, Gardiner looks like a player who could get to that 1,000th game.

While his skating ability is what immediately stands out – and was a big reason he was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks 17th overall in 2008 – his "cool under fire" persona means he's rarely panicked even in key situations.

As a result, he's picked up more minutes on special teams of late – including four-plus minutes on the penalty kill in two recent games – and is one of the NHL leaders in minutes played by a rookie.

While Leafs GM Brian Burke noted that Gardiner is "well ahead of schedule," coach Ron Wilson hesitated Friday when asked if he was surprised just how well his youngest regular was handling so much ice time.

"I guess," Wilson said. "Well, no, I shouldn't say I'm surprised. He's shown this ability right from the first day of training camp. He doesn't seem to ever show any stage fright at all."

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Gardiner credits Liles and captain Dion Phaneuf for helping him make the transition from the University of Wisconsin, which he left early after putting up 41 points in 41 games in his third year last year.

Liles knows that route well, having made the Colorado Avalanche at 22 right out of Michigan State, but even he admitted Gardiner has adjusted better than he did and better than anyone could have expected.

"Being 21 and jumping into a spotlight like this, it's never easy," Liles said. "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."

The ribbing continued this week in Dallas. All it took was for the team bus to wheel past the "Silver Lot" at Cowboys Stadium on Thursday for the quiet kid from small-town Minnesota to become the centre of attention.

"They give me crap sometimes," Gardiner said. "But I think it's all fun and games."

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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