It has been said that the trade rumours surrounding Toronto Maple Leafs blueliner Jake Gardiner are dying down. But as most of those familiar with the league know, such trends can find themselves completely reversed in the blink of an eye. And while many assert that the defenceman is far too promising a player to trade, others feel that the current complexion of the Leafs’ blue line has Gardiner’s days in Toronto numbered.
Earlier this season, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that although the Leafs were not actively pursuing a transaction, they were certainly not refusing to listen to offers. And although it is at this point no more than speculation, those that do anticipate Gardiner’s relocation have suggested a number of teams as a potential trade partners. In an article published earlier this month, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliot Friedman mentioned that Minnesota, Florida, and Dallas might be a good fit, while the Edmonton Oliers have also been brought up in some circles. But perhaps the Leafs’ best suitor for a Gardiner-centred deal can be found not in northern Alberta, but rather in the south: the Calgary Flames.
The Flames’ defensive core is by no means the envy of the league. It’s true that the Flames have respectable veteran presence on the blue line in the form of work-horse captain Mark Giordano and offensive contributor Dennis Wideman. And it’s true that 23-year-old TJ Brodie is continuing to show great promise in his development, even chipping in offensively with a goal and two assists in 10 games thus far. His -5 plus/minus over that same 10-game span, however, is a rather unpleasant statistic. Past that, the Flames’ defensive depth chart is fairly underwhelming. Chris Butler, Shane O’Brien, and Kris Russell are all older than 25 on a rebuilding team, and none of them has much of a reputation for reliability or difference-making play. 24-year-old Christopher Breen, the only blueliner under 25 on the Flames roster aside from Brodie, has spent the last four seasons with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat, and although his two games with the Flames this season are the first of his NHL career, it should be noted he posted a -11 plus/minus in last year’s campaign with the farm team.
It could be argued that Gardiner won’t fit well in the Flames’ roster; he, along with every member of the Flames’ current defensive line-up with the exception of Wideman, is a right-handed shooter. But this argument lacks substance, since Gardiner would be replacing one of these righties, which would do nothing to exacerbate this imbalance that already exists on Calgary’s back end. Additionally, while there may an abundance of Flames defencemen who share Gardiner’s right-handed shot, Calgary has no such plethora of those that share his puck-moving abilities.
Calgary’s defensive prospects do deserve some credit; the group has respectable upside, and some individuals have shown promise in brief stints with the big club. Mark Cundari, for example, had a goal and a pair of assists in four games with the Flames last season. But Gardiner would bolster the Flames’ defensive core, both present and prospective, by a considerable amount. Along with Brodie, Gardiner would also add young leadership to the Flames’ roster, and both have shown that they have the potential to emerge as the anchors on Calgary’s back end as the team continues to phase out its veteran players.
While Gardiner is a smart fit for Calgary, the question becomes if Calgary is a sensible trade partner for the Leafs. Dave Nonis has stated that a deal would require the inclusion of an “elite forward” for him to consider moving Gardiner. This is where things could get problematic for Calgary, since the Flames no longer have what most would consider to be an elite forward. But Nonis’ expectations seem fairly unreasonable given that the Leafs are already tight against the salary cap, and as any negotiator worth their salt knows, initial demands are rarely non-negotiable.
Meanwhile, in Calgary, Curtis Glencross appears to be struggling in the early stages of his sixth season with the Flames. The winger has only two goals, two assists, and a -6 plus/minus through 10 games. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that he has a mere 14 shots on the year, despite averaging over 19 minutes of ice time a game playing on the Flames’ top line. But a change of scenery might rekindle the forward’s production. And while Glencross might not be quite as “elite” as Nonis would like, he would provide the Leafs with a considerable offensive boost on the wing; although he has yet to play a full 82-game season, Glencross has reached or surpassed the 40-point mark on four occasions, and followed up consecutive 24- and 26-goal seasons by netting another 15 in 40 games of last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. Glencross would fit in nicely on Toronto’s second or third line, and also wouldn’t be too much of a squeeze for Toronto’s problematic payroll.
The Leafs’ salary cap issues predate the season, and severely handcuffed them during contract negotiations with Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson. The Flames, in contrast, have over $13 million in cap space, and could help give Toronto some financial breathing room. Glencross is accompanied by a $2.6 million cap hit, which is quite fair for a proven 20-plus-goal-scorer. Trading Gardiner to Calgary could also present the Leafs with an opportunity to move defenceman John-Michael Liles, which might make Calgary far more appealing to Toronto. Liles has been playing in the AHL since the Leafs sent him down in order to bury $900,000 of his $3.9 million cap hit. The Flames could easily take on Liles’ salary, and he could be an upgrade on the Flames’ present blue line. In a worst-case scenario, the Flames could either bury Liles as the Leafs did, or simply buy him out (as the Flames still have their compliance buyouts available). But neither move should prove necessary: Liles’ contract runs through to the end of the 2015-16 season, and in their rebuilding state, the Flames shouldn’t need to spend that money before then.
While a trade that sends Jake Gardiner to Calgary makes sense for both the Flames and the Leafs, it will obviously require Calgary to give up more than just Glencross to make it happen. Jay Feaster and the Flames management staff must be careful not to mortgage the franchise’s future by tempting Nonis with early-round draft picks in an effort to land the blueliner. But if a reasonable deal that benefits both teams can be made, and it seems that indeed it can, then perhaps the Flames should be the organization to rekindle these dying trade talks.
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