Throughout his tenure as a Toronto Maple Leafs, there has been no more polarizing player than Jake Gardiner. He’s an offence first defenceman with the ability to play top-three minutes on a good team. However, he seems to find himself in trouble on a daily basis. From being booed at home to being scapegoated as the cause of Toronto’s first-round playoff exit against the Boston Bruins in 2018. Jake Gardiner has taken a lot of flack from Leaf fans. The media could be to blame but his contract narrative goes far deeper than the market he plays in.
Now set to be an unrestricted free agent in July, the Leafs are faced with an incredibly tough decision. What to do with Gardiner on a team with very shallow defensive depth. If this season is any indicator, the Leafs will lose no matter what happens with Gardiner at the end of the year.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Can’t Afford To Lose or Keep Jake Gardiner
Gardiner’s History As A Leaf
After being selected 17th overall in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks, Gardiner was traded to Toronto for their defensive defender, Francois Beauchemin. He would see his first NHL action the following season in 2011-12. Gardiner put up 30 points in 75 games as a rookie but would start 2013 in the minors. His first game for the Leafs wouldn’t come until January 23rd and his third wouldn’t come until March. However, this was the last time Gardiner’s spot on the Leafs was ever in question. Since then he has only missed more than three games in a single season once. That season is 2019.
Besides this year, Gardiner has been very consistent but his dependability varies night-to-night. His inconstancies come out on a nightly basis. Whether it’s turning over the puck or getting caught up at the front of the play. However, these qualities even-out over a full season. In five of his six seasons as a full-time NHLer, Gardiner has registered 30 points or more in each. He also increased his point totals in three straight seasons before 2018-19. His Corsi isn’t awful either, despite popular belief. Gardiner has not had a sub 50 Corsi percentage since 2013-14. He currently ranks 5th out of eight on the Leafs D with a CF% of 51.77%.
The negatives that make Jake Gardiner such a unique player don’t typically show up on a collective stat sheet. They rather stick out every couple of games on film. He’s been a good Leaf on average during his tenure with the team. Morgan Rielly has been his only defensive teammate to affect the game like the way he does.
Gardiner’s 2018-19 Season
Gardiner’s season this year has been just what was expected of him. Rielly has taken the majority of the powerplay and first pairing time, leaving Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev as the default second pairing. The pairing was bound to have its problems with two very offensive-minded defenders. However, Gardiner was able to become the anchor of the two. He played much better in his own zone while his partner is having debatably his worst defensive season to date. Zaitsev currently holds a -4.2 relative Corsi percentage.
Gardiner, on the other hand, has been a lot better when healthy. Since Gardiner was ruled out of the lineup with a back injury on February 27th, the Leafs have mightly struggled defensively. Before the injury, Toronto had given up the eighth least goals in the league, averaging 2.84 goals against per game. In the 15 games since they have given up the third most goals in the NHL. An average of 3.7 a game. This is made even more bizarre because the Leafs acquired Jake Muzzin January 28th to solidify the defensive corps. Muzzin has spent the majority of his time as a Leafs besides Zaitsev on the second pairing.
Playing a better offensive game than their opponent was always going to be the best method for the Leafs to win games in 2019 and Gardiner has proved to fit perfectly into their system. The loss of both Gardiner and Dermott has hurt the Leafs in that aspect.
Moving Into Free Agency
When Gardiner signed his last contract with the Leafs, he was coming off a 31 point season and was rewarded with a five-year deal worth just over $4 million a season. He’s now in line for a raise with the cap likely going up and his presence proving to be so valuable. The Leafs can’t afford to give him what he’s worth but at the same badly need him. Gardiner will likely receive something similar to Nick Leddy‘s seven year(s)/$38.5 million deal.
For contract comparison, Nick Schmaltz of the Arizona Coyotes signed a new contract Saturday to keep him in Glendale for the next seven years. The contract owns an average annual value of $5.85 million and a total value of $40.95 million. Schmaltz 23, was a first rounder like Gardiner and registered a career-high 52 point last year in his only full NHL season. Gardiner has the same career high in points. However, is a defenseman which makes it more impressive.
Zaitsev signed a seven-year(s)/$31.5 million deal after registering 36 points in his first NHL season in 2017. His deal has an AAV of $4.5 million and using this deal as a precedent, Gardiner will demand more. Rielly’s contract also carries an AAV of $5 million, meaning if the Leafs want to keep Gardiner, he will likely become their highest paid defenseman. A lot of people would see an issue there.
Gardiner will be a free agent come July 1st and teams are going to be lining up to talk to him even before. With the contract of Mitch Marner just around the corner for Kyle Dubas to negotiate, Gardiner likely will not be a priority to keep around. Defenders that score over 50 points aren’t easy to find.
No matter what Dubas decides to do with Gardiner at the end of the year, there will be a large ripple effect. The Leafs have simply missed Gardiner too much this season and need to find someone who can fill the minutes he occupies. Toronto already has a ton of contracts to deal with without the added wrinkle of Gardiner. But the complexity of his situation needs to be properly evaluated by Leafs management. Gardiner is currently back at Leafs practice skating with the team and Mike Babcock should be ecstatic. The Leafs need a healthy Gardiner if they plan on winning their first playoff series since 2004.
Jake Gardiner effects how the Leafs will improve or decline going forward perhaps more than any of their upcoming forward contracts.