Mark Giordano embraces oversized role with Leafs
Mark Giordano has shouldered more of the Leafs' defensive load this season than anyone could've expected. Photo by Christopher Katsarov/CP.

TORONTO – Two tidy stats tell you everything you need to know about how special this season has been for Mark Giordano.

At age 39, he is both the oldest skater in the NHL and the one with the most ice time at 5-on-5 while owning a positive goal differential.

That’s downright mind-blowing when you consider how much more arduous the workload has been than expected, with Giordano thrust into a top-pairing role for the last month while teammates around him streamed to the trainer’s table.

“He plays hard minutes,” observed veteran Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, before Thursday’s 5-0 loss to the Leafs. “He doesn’t play like these offensive defencemen — ‘Just don’t hit, don’t get hit’ — he’s a guy that plays physical and blocks shots and stuff like that.

“Really impressive.”

It’s hard to imagine how the Maple Leafs might have coped during this star-crossed stretch without a man raised with The Passion near Weston and Sheppard.

Giordano gave back to his boyhood team by signing a heavily discounted two-year contract in May — there are more than 180 NHL defencemen playing for more than his $800,000 — and he looked anything but a depth option while stringing together 12 straight games with 20-plus minutes alongside Justin Holl.

The Leafs are an organization heavily invested in sports science, using data to set everything from practice schedules to travel times. They would never have dreamed of leaning so heavily on Giordano at this stage of his career. Then they lost Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie to injury and triage mode kicked in.

Giordano certainly wasn’t complaining.

He’s approaching 25,000 career minutes in the NHL and still refuses to skip optional morning skates. He keeps an eye on some of the tracking data the team shares on output, but he’s not changing long-established routines now.

“I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it’s made out,” he said. “It’s a few extra shifts every period and you can manage it, for sure.”

It will not come as a surprise to many on the other side of the ice when the Calgary Flames visit Saturday. Giordano was still averaging 23 minutes per night for his long-time team as recently as two seasons ago — right up until he was exposed and ultimately lost to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 expansion draft.

His game is built on strong positional awareness, which should not dim with age, but it also requires a strength and fearlessness that might. There’s a reason why Sheldon Keefe constantly mentions what a competitor Giordano is: His 58 blocked shots leads the team and are eighth-most in the NHL.

The coach also loves the fact that nothing bad seems to happen when he’s on the ice.

Just seven goals have been scored against the Leafs during Giordano’s 440 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, the lowest among all minute-munchers in that range. Boston’s Hampus Lindholm is next best from that group at 10 goals against, followed by Detroit’s Filip Hronek (12), Calgary’s MacKenzie Weegar (13) and a pack including Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey at 14.

With Brodie now back in the lineup, it’s reasonable to expect Giordano’s usage to decline slightly. He played 18:58 against the Kings. But it won’t necessarily lessen his impact.

“Whatever the team needs, whatever the coaching staff needs from him, he’s going to give you absolutely everything he has,” said Keefe.

Consider this anecdote for context on how long he’s been at this: Giordano’s first two NHL goals were scored on a memorable Saturday night in Toronto during a meeting between the Flames and Leafs. That was the game where Mats Sundin completed a hat trick and scored his 500th with the overtime winner in October 2006.

It’s been quite a journey.

Before becoming a 1,000-game NHL player and winning a Norris Trophy, Giordano took the road less travelled. He was never drafted in junior or the NHL. He left the Flames early in his career and spent a season in Russia – a decision that seemed unorthodox at the time, but has seen him play every shift in the NHL since returning.

Now here he is defying what is expected at an age where he could easily be doing something other than grinding through the rigours of another long season.

“I don’t know what that takes. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll make it that long,” Doughty said. “[My] body is super banged up already at 33, so for him to be doing that at 39?

“That shows how good of a pro he is and how well he takes care of himself.”

And it’s a reminder of how well he’s taken care of the Leafs, too.

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