It was an optional skate. But Mark Giordano, who kind of looks like the guy who plays on three different beer league teams, was taking part like he always does.
And then, as he just as often does, he was holding court, doing three separate waves of interviews: One, with the writers. Another, with TV. And another with visiting media from Los Angeles.
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All told, Giordano spoke for close to 30 minutes while his teammates stayed in the back room.
Judging by his face, he looked like he enjoyed every minute of it. Just as he has been loving the bigger role he has been playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, while half the defence recovers from injuries.
“You try to manage it as best as you can,” Giordano said. “I think you start getting a little gassed when there’s a lot of penalty kills. But in saying that, it’s fun. It’s fun to play a lot. No one’s going to be complaining about playing too many minutes. When you’re getting out there and playing a lot, you don’t worry about mistakes as much. You’re just going out there every shift or every two shifts and feel good about yourself.”
Ever since T.J. Brodie went out with an oblique injury midway through last month — followed by Morgan Rielly with a knee injury — Giordano has been averaging 22-and-a-half minutes a game. It’s close to what he had been averaging during his time in Calgary. But for someone on the tail-end of his career, it’s a significant bump from the third-pairing minutes he was getting at the start of the season.
“Again, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it’s made out to be,” Giordano said. “It’s only a few extra shifts every period. You can manage it for sure.”
It’s more than just the minutes or what he calls a few extra shifts. Giordano has gone from seeing the other team’s bottom-six to matching up against their top line. At the same time, he’s now playing with teammates who are looking to score.
He can’t just chip the puck off the glass and be happy that no one scored. He’s now responsible for finding Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner with a pass and jump-starting the offence. And in the past 12 games (one goal, four assists, and a plus-6 rating), he appears to have made a seamless transition.
“It’s always nice to contribute when you can too. But I never have been a guy who judges my game based on that,” said Giordano. “If you’re playing on the first unit power play and you’re playing in those offensive situations, you know you’re counted on for that. Whereas more and more this year, I would say it’s about keeping the puck out of our net.”
Giordano is a minute-muncher. This is what he does. What he’s known for. He’s used to playing a lot. Year after year, he was among the NHL leaders in ice time. When he won the Norris Trophy in 2018-19, he was averaging nearly 25 minutes per game.
Of course, he was 34 back then.
Now, the 39-year-old is the oldest skater in the league.
This is not what anyone expected. Nor is it what the Leafs signed him for. They considered Giordano, who is on a two-year contract that carries a team-friendly $850,000 cap hit, to be affordable depth. A veteran who could fill the void created by Jason Spezza. The kind of gritty gamer that every championship team needs.
Giordano has been that. But as usual, with a player who went undrafted into the NHL and had to then earn everything he has received, the Toronto native has surprised everyone by bringing even more to the table.
“It’s more than we anticipated giving Gio,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We’ve always felt that he has the ability to do it and especially in the short-term situation. What allows him to do it? I’ve talked about this before, but he’s just an absolute competitor. He’s just whatever the team needs, whatever the coaching staff needs from him, he’s going to do absolutely everything.”
That being said, Keefe added: “I don’t think you want to push the envelope.”
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To that end, Giordano has been mindful of his extra minutes. He wears a heart-rate monitor to track his workload and the volume of his activity. He’s trying to be more efficient and more economical with his movements. There’s less running around to his game. With more than 1,000 games under his belt, he has learned to be more positionally sound.
“For sure, you get better with your reads and you get better with positioning and stuff,” said Giordano. “I think with a lot of young guys, your first few 100 games, you’re running a little bit. You’re running around trying to make the big play or the big hit. And I think you get better and better with experience. In saying that, the game’s changed. you’ve got some D in our league who are putting up 90 to 100 points and they’re running around all over the ice. it’s a little bit different as well now.
“I think I’ve always been a defenceman who tries to keep it as simple as possible.”
It might be simple. But for the Leafs, it also has been effective.