Evan Gardner is “enjoying every moment” on his way to the 2024 NHL Draft


Evan Gardner is “enjoying every moment” on his way to the 2024 NHL Draft

The list of accolades earned by Saskatoon Blades rookie goalie Evan Gardner during the 2023–24 season is long. The 2006-born goalie was nominated as a finalist for Western Hockey League (WHL) Rookie of the Year and Humanitarian of the Year, led the league in save percentage (SV%) and goals against average (GAA), finished second in WHL shutouts, was named WHL Goalie of the Week twice and WHL Rookie of the Week three times, and guarded the goal crease during the Blades' run to overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

That's the resume most goalies coming through the WHL dream of. The next goal on Gardner's list is to hear his name called at the 2024 NHL Entry Draft in June in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“It was an incredible experience,” Gardner said. “Having the chance to be drafted is something you dream about as a kid, so I enjoyed every moment and soaked it all in.”

Gardner was named to NHL Central Scouting's preliminary list of players to watch at the start of the season. The 6'2″ goaltender was given a “W” grade, meaning he is a sixth- or seventh-round prospect and first-time NHL Draft eligible. He is a “work in progress” player with little scouting history and few games played. Gardner received more recognition after an impressive first half of his rookie season. The NHL Draft eligible goaltender posted a 10-4-0-1 record with a .928 save percentage and 2.02 goals-against average in the first half of the season. In January, Gardner was ranked 16th among North American goaltenders in NHL Central Scouting's halftime rankings.

The Saskatoon Blades vs. the Moose Jaw Warriors at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, May 3, 2024

Blades goalkeeping coach Jeff Harvey attributes the success of Gardner's game to his mental toughness.

“Evan never had a very bright light,” Harvey said. “His first WHL appearance in Regina didn't go as well as he wanted. However, he responded the very next night in our home opener and was named the first star. From there, he got off to a flying start. We knew he could just bounce back and he just got better from there. It was incredible to watch the progress he made throughout the season.”

“The first game in Regina was a rough start for me,” Gardner said. “I think that was a game where I got carried away by the moment and let it overwhelm me. After that, I never let that happen again.”

Success never went to Gardner's head, nor did the typical stereotypes about hockey goalies.

“There are a lot of goalies, myself included when I was playing, we were mentally exhausted trying to do all these little things to get in shape,” Harvey said. “Evan is just a carefree guy. He goes about his business, goes with the flow, which allows him to be relaxed off the ice, and that carries over into his play on the ice. My son came to the bench in the playoffs warming up and Evan came up and said hi to him. I was surprised, but that shows he's not too mentally hyper, he's just enjoying the moment.”

Gardner finished his first year with Saskatoon 21-5-0-2. The 18-year-old set a franchise record for a season with at least 30 games played with a .927 SV% and 1.91 GAA. Gardner's four shutouts were tied for second-most in the league with tandem partner Austin Elliott. Harvey says Elliott served as a mentor to Gardner and gained a full season of experience on the team's path to the Eastern Conference finals in 2022-23.

“The number one rule for our Blades goalies is to work hard, and I think that's the biggest thing Austin passed on to Evan this year,” Harvey said. “I just showed him that daily work is so critical to success. Even on the days you don't feel good, you have to come on the ice and work.”

“We've been fighting our asses off in practice,” Gardner said. “Being on the bench in the first half of a lot of games and seeing what he's done, how he's prepared and how he's handled things has been huge for me.”

The Saskatoon Blades vs. the Prince Albert Raiders, first round, second game of the playoffs at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, March 29, 2024

When the final NHL Central Scouting rankings were released in mid-April, Gardner was ranked seventh among North American goaltenders.

“I was never nervous and had to worry about what the other people in the stands were thinking or who was watching me,” Gardner said. “I really just focused on myself and getting the next ball blocked. I attribute most of my success this year to just having fun.”

Gardner's play was instrumental in the Blades winning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy, awarded to the best team in the WHL's regular season. Gardner made his WHL playoff debut in Game 2 of Round 1 against the Prince Albert Raiders and never looked back. The Blades' former third-round pick went 7-0 in the first two rounds against Prince Albert and the Red Deer Rebels in Round 2, and picked up his first WHL playoff shutout in a series-deciding Game 4 of Round 2 against Red Deer.

The Blades lost to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the closest playoff series the WHL has ever seen. Six of seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals went to overtime, including the series-deciding Game 7, which the Blades lost 3-2 at home. The Blades' two overtime losses at the SaskTel Centre during the Eastern Conference Finals are the only two times Gardner has ever lost at home. Even with over 10,000 fans at home on multiple nights in his career, Gardner was never pressured.

“Evan is just enjoying this opportunity,” Harvey said. “He looks at it like, 'This is awesome, so many people are here to watch me do my thing and just watch me play the game that I love.' The more people there are in the stands, the more he loves it.”

The Saskatoon Blades vs. the Red Deer Rebels at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, April 14, 2024

“Honestly, it was the best year of hockey I've ever had,” Gardner said. “We were a super strong group and what we did night after night, I wouldn't have wanted to do with anyone else.”

Anyone who had never heard of Evan Gardner at the beginning of the season would not have forgotten him by the end. Gardner established himself as a fan favorite not only with his play on the ice, but also with his relationship with the diabetic community after announcing his childhood diagnosis.

“Since my diagnosis, my goal has been to show kids and athletes that they can continue to do what they want and that diabetes doesn’t stop them,” Gardner said.

After making his diagnosis public in October 2023, Gardner partnered with Diabetes Canada for the Lace Up to End Diabetes initiative as part of Diabetes Awareness Month in November. Gardner led the “Unite the Circle” challenge, which saw Blades fans walk down the concourse of the SaskTel Centre on November to raise money for Diabetes Canada. After the game, Gardner offered to meet with the participants without being asked to do so. Gardner continues to be an ambassador for Diabetes Canada and hopes to be able to take the initiative even further in the future.

As for his offseason work, Gardner knows he can take his game to the next level.

“I think optimizing my diet better and getting stronger in the gym will help me tremendously next year. I want to be the starter and play a lot more games.”

Round 1 of the NHL Entry Draft will take place live at the Sphere in Las Vegas on Friday, June 28, followed by rounds 2 through 7 the following day.