A topic once considered taboo in Leafs Nation has now become the talk of the town: Should Jake Gardiner be traded? His early season struggles have been highly publicized, as he was expected to be far better after being lights-out in last year’s playoffs. Now it appears the Gardiner Expressway could be on its way out.
Gardiner got off to a characteristically fast start in Toronto, just months after being traded with Joffrey Lupul for Francois Beauchemin. Gardiner made his debut for the Leafs after arguably being the best defenseman in training camp. Thus begun an impressive rookie campaign, as Gardiner was often the best skater on the ice and managed to rack up 30 points.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, Gardiner was maligned by something of a sophomore slump in his next year. Gardiner ended up spending most of the season in the AHL, a lockout and a slow concussion recovery being the main culprits. Randy Carlyle also received a share of the blame among fans and media for keeping Gardiner out of the lineup when many thought he was ready to return. The Minnesota native ended up playing just 12 games in the regular season, looking for the most part like a shell of his former self. Scratched in the first game of the playoffs, he made his way into the lineup after Mike Kostka suffered a broken finger.
Gardiner could be on his way out for a number of reasons. Firstly, his trade value is still high. A weak few games to start a season isn’t enough to erase the talk that surrounded Gardiner after his phenomenal postseason and freshman year, so it’s unlikely that GMs around the league will de-value him for struggling early on. This is not to say that Gardiner has been all bad; he performed well in his game against the Nashville Predators, restraining himself from trying to lead a rush every time he got the puck and looking much more cool and collected than in previous games.
Another factor which might make a departing Gardiner not seem so bad is the rise of Morgan Rielly. After a rough debut against the Ottawa Senators, Rielly has substantially improved, highlighted by his play against the Predators. He looked confident with and without the puck, provided some physicality and scored his first career point. Seeing as they are very similar in their styles of play, Randy Carlyle may find it unnecessary to have both of them in the lineup night in and night out. Trading Gardiner would free up Rielly to play every night without letting the Leafs lose any skills they do not already have. This would be dependent on Rielly’s ability to consistently play as well as he did against Nashville, something which he has obviously not done so far.
But there are still drawbacks to trading Gardiner. Given the Leafs’ cap situation, it’s unlikely that trading Gardiner alone would net a player who can immediately impact the roster now. If the Leafs were to send some salary with Gardiner in a trade (John-Michael Liles would appear to be the best candidate as a salary dump), they could get a roster player in return, but the return would be lessened because any team willing to take Liles’ contract would be doing the Leafs a favour, the same way the Leafs took on Matthew Lombardi’s contract for Cody Franson.
Gardiner also still has a high ceiling, and has shown glimpses of being a dominant defenseman at the NHL level. Trading a player with those qualities is always a risk. The Leafs once traded a future Norris Trophy winner after his second season in Toronto because he hadn’t lived up to the hype quickly enough. That defenseman has since returned to coach the team.
There are a few teams that could use Gardiner’s services. The New York Islanders have been adding to their defense stockpile for some time now, and have Ryan Strome, a centre prospect who the Leafs would no doubt love to have. Calgary could be another team interested in Jake Gardiner’s services, as Brian Burke was always a fan and they need help on the backend as much as anyone. Max Reinhart could be part of a package coming to the Leafs in return for Gardiner.
In conclusion, I don’t think the Leafs should trade Jake Gardiner, at least not yet. Rielly still has to prove that he can be the Leafs’ go-to puck-mover for them to risk trading Gardiner so until that happens, don’t expect to see Gardiner wearing anything but blue and white.