Jake Gardiner is a good hockey player that has had, unfortunately, his worst moments on the biggest stages. After turning in two very solid seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Gardiner struggled mightily in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in both 2018 and 2019. That made him a target for Leaf fans.
Gardiner has been a target of a different kind for the Oilers dating all the way back to the summer of 2013. After hiring Dallas Eakins, Edmonton went about acquiring multiple players that played for him with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. A young defender still trying to find his way, Gardiner was supposedly on the trade market and one of the guys GM Craig MacTavish looked at in the “summer of bold”.
A trade never happened, and Gardiner developed into a strong top-four defender that fits the modern game so well.
Why Is He Out There?:
The Maple Leafs are about to hit salary cap hell. William Nylander will earn $10,277,778 this coming season, while Auston Matthews’ AAV jumps up to $11,634,000. Mitch Marner is going to need a new contract this summer, and will almost certainly earn a massive raise, while John Tavares and his $11,000,000 are still on the books.
The Leafs are desperately trying to shed Patrick Marleau’s contract as we speak to get Marner’s deal done, while the club also has to figure out what to do with veteran Ron Hainsey.
Gardiner is going to get paid significantly more than the $4,050,000 he is currently counting against the cap. Unless he is taking a massive discount to stay with the Leafs, there is simply no way he returns to Toronto.
What Does He Do Well?:
Gardiner is a perfect fit for the modern NHL because of his mobility and puck moving skills. Although he isn’t an elite point producer, the puck is always moving in the right direction with Gardiner on the ice.
In 62 games this season, Gardiner registered 30 points (3-27-30), down significantly from the 52 he picked up in 2017-18 (5-47-52). Since the Leafs turned things around in 2016-17, 30 points was the worst offensive season that Gardiner has had.
That said, when you factor in the 20 lost games, it’s safe to say he would have been around 40 points for the third season in a row. That’s consistently good production.
Per hockey-reference, Gardiner’s possession metrics were solid once again this past season. He posted a 52.2% Corsi-For%, which was once again positive compared to his teammates (+1.9%). Gardiner’s Fenwick-For% at five-on-five was solid as well, 50.4%, on a team that was overall below break even.
Gardiner handled a top-four role for the Leafs, averaging 21:13 per game. Interestingly, he wasn’t handed a significant amount of offensive zone starts when compared to other mobile defenders. Gardiner started just 50.4% of his shifts in the offensive zone for Toronto this season.
Here’s a look at his scouting report via The Sports Forecaster:
Where Will He Play / Where Should He Play?:
Gardiner is, no questions asked, a top-four defender in the NHL. That’s the role he should be playing, and that is the role he would play in Edmonton. It’s debatable if he’s a better player than Oscar Klefbom, but I don’t think it’s bad problem to have.
I’d probably run Klefbom ahead of Gardiner, but those two anchoring your top two pairings is pretty solid.
What Will He Cost?:
A lot. In fact, unless the Oilers are able to completely dump Kris Russell’s salary AND move Andrej Sekera or Darnell Nurse, they aren’t going to be able to afford Gardiner. He’s going to get a long-term deal, think six-or-seven years, and is likely to eclipse the $6,000,000 mark. I could see him getting even as high as $7,000,000 per on his next contract should a bidding war develop.
I have a lot of time for Gardiner, and I’d love to see him in Edmonton. Imagine him firing pucks up to McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins? He’s exactly the kind of puck moving defender that this team is lacking right now.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of obstacles for the Gardiner-to-Edmonton train. The first is obvious, there just isn’t enough money to add him. Second is the long-jam on the left side. The Oilers already have Klefbom, Nurse, Sekera and Russell on the roster as left-shots, with Caleb Jones nearly ready to make the jump.
As good of a fit as I think he is, there are just too many obstacles for this to happen. It’s too bad.