A year ago, Rhett Gardner was slogging out his senior year for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. During his freshman year, the team won the Frozen Four, but by his third year, they’d fallen out of the NCAA playoffs, a trend that continued last year.
With no playoffs, Gardner got a jump on his professional career, playing 11 games down the stretch with the Texas Stars. During that stint, he went on an uncharacteristic scoring spurt, potting four goals to go with one assist as the season wound down.
Gardner’s reputation is as a defensive, cerebral center, and his career numbers from college bear that out. Over four years, Gardner scored a total of 34 goals while registering 40 assists.
After the Dallas Stars lost three starters to injury in game one, and with Corey Perry recovering from an off-ice foot injury, Gardner and Nicholas Caamano were re-called from Texas. Jason Dickinson is now back, and Perry drew in for his first game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, so the forward group is only missing Blake Comeau. Yet, Gardner is still with the NHL club.
In order to figure out what it is about Gardner’s game that has kept him with Dallas after the rest of the Stars’ call-ups have been sent down to Texas, I went through some game film. A bit unexpectedly, what I saw was a player who seems to always be one step ahead of the game. He may not have the offensive numbers of a top line forward, but Gardner is exactly the type of player that a team wants filling out its bottom six.
One of the first things that you notice about Gardner’s game is that when the team is tracking into the defensive zone, all you need to do is look to the center of the ice. Gardner will be there - reliably. As a center, he’ll track to the boards to help a teammate and to even up numbers, but not at the expense of controlling the crease.
When Gardner does go to the boards, he wins one on one battles. In this clip, Gardner goes into the corner, knocks Johan Larsson off the puck, controls it with his skates, and feeds it to Esa Lindell behind the net.
This sequence continues with Gardner making his stick available to take a bump off of the boards. He controls the puck, heading up ice, where he makes an against the grain pass that leads to a shot by Andrew Cogliano.
On the forecheck, Gardner is rarely the first forward in. He seems to do best when he is second in, and does a great job of reading where a defenders pass will go to avoid losing the puck to the initial checker. By anticipating the play, Gardner allows the team to establish full team offensive zone pressure.
He makes similar reads on zone exits. Here, Gardner peels off of a turnover to create a scoring chance for John Klingberg, who comes in as the trailer.
When his team has the puck, Gardner makes his stick available, and when the puck hits the tape, the puck sticks.
So far this season, Gardner has only taken six shots, and if his career numbers point to anything, there should be no expectation that he will ever be a dynamic scorer. He does, however, find open space and seems to have a knack for finding teammates in dangerous areas. Here, he finds Caamano sliding down the slot for a quality opportunity.
Gardner excelled at face-offs while at North Dakota and was a multi-year member of the NCHC Academic All-Conference Team. He reads the game exceptionally well, and at 23 years of age and with four years of college hockey behind him, he has already grown into his body.
In addition to looking good on film, Gardner’s underlying numbers include positive possession and shot metrics, as well as above average expect goal percentages. Don’t be surprised if Gardner stays in Dallas for the remainder of the year and beyond.