The Toronto Maple Leafs re-signed 24-year-old puck-moving defenseman Jake Gardiner to a five-year deal with a yearly cap hit of $4.05-million last night. The signing makes Gardiner the second highest-paid defenseman on the Leafs after Dion Phaneuf and makes him the only other d-man signed beyond 2016-17.
General manager Dave Nonis has repeatedly gone with short, one- or two-year contracts for his restricted free agents to keep the current cap hit minimal. We saw that with Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson (twice) and James Reimer.
The problem with those bridge deals is when they run out, the player is usually in the prime of his career and ready for a hefty, long-term raise. If you can sign a young player long term to eat into some of his unrestricted free agent years as the Leafs did with Gardiner, you’re probably going to save money because that player isn’t fully established yet.
The deal is very similar to what 22-year-old Cam Fowler and 24-year-old Roman Josi signed for last year. Even though Fowler is younger than Gardiner, he has about 100 more NHL games of experience, and has developed into the most important d-man on the Anaheim Ducks. Josi didn’t really break out until last season when he put up 40 points and averaged over 26 minutes of ice time.
After hitting the 30-point plateau in both of his full seasons in a Leafs uniform and playing around 21 minutes a night, Gardiner certainly deserves the money. His skating ability is elite, and when he’s given the green light to join the rush, he’s usually able to make things happen offensively. He’s also a top-notch power-play quarterback and is routinely the top possession player on the Leafs.
Now can we please stop including Gardiner in every trade rumour? Thanks.