The Toronto Maple Leafs shored up their blue line with the recent acquisition of Jake Muzzin. However, a decision remains to be made concerning the future of another Jake on the back-end.
Jake Gardiner is expected to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st for the first time in his career. After posting a career-high 52 points last season, the 28-year-old is on pace to regress and post his lowest points total since 2015-16.
Gardiner’s 40 point projection is nothing to scoff at and he will still command a hefty price tag at year’s end. However, it is nearly a foregone conclusion that a team will have to overpay or overcommit, even both, in order to land the second best defenceman on the open market.
This year’s free agency crop is not especially intriguing for rearguards. To put this into perspective, Ron Hainsey ranks fourth in points among impending UFA defencemen with 16. For teams looking to add an offensive-minded puck-moving defender, Gardiner is the best option outside of Erik Karlsson.
A simple analysis of recent free agent signings, both restricted and not, indicates a trend that teams are willing to pay a premium to lock up back-end pieces. Gardiner will almost certainly be too rich for Toronto and it would be wise to keep him as their own trade deadline rental.
From a statistical perspective, 24-year-old Matt Dumba is a reasonable comparison and was signed to a five year, $36 million contract that carries a $6 million AAV. The 50 point defenceman was an RFA and, unlike Gardiner, will be locked up in his prime moving forward. Gardiner’s peak years are presumably behind him, yet he remains a formidable lock in most team’s top-four and is expected to be for several more years.
Buying up formative UFA years appears to be the new norm and it doesn’t help that players coming off of entry-level contracts, such as Brady Skjei or Shea Theodore, are earning upwards of $5.2 million per season with term included.
Although Gardiner is 28-years-old, Calvin de Haan still managed to ink a four-year deal worth $4.55 million AAV at age 27 following an injury-riddled season. That was in July 2018. Deep statistical metrics aside, de Haan posted just 12 points in 33 games before signing and has a lowly career-high of 25 points back in 2016-17. Gardiner has an opportunity to cash in on his past success.
Perhaps the most underappreciated player on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ current roster, Gardiner still has a lot left in the tank but would be a liability towards the end of a long-term deal. Regression appears inevitable for a player of his heavily offensive play style.
Window of Opportunity
The Toronto Maple Leafs may have no choice but to subtract from a position of weakness this summer in order to balance their chequebook in accordance with the salary cap.
Factoring in the inevitably lucrative contracts for several restricted free agents, as well as Muzzin’s $4 million salary cap hit, the Leafs have minimal wiggle room this summer when it comes to signing players outside of their current core group. Auston Matthews now has cost certainty but several other RFA’s remain to be signed, namely Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
Similar to the James van Riemsdyk situation last season, Toronto must cut their losses and accept the fact of Gardiner walking for free in the off-season. With many of the Leafs’ young stars still on entry-level deals, now is the time to maximize the team’s potential and stock up for a deep playoff run. It doesn’t mean they should sacrifice more future pieces to do so.
Assuming Gardiner seeks his paycheque elsewhere, there are several members of the Toronto Marlies that appear poised to crack the NHL roster sooner rather than later. Calle Rosen is a prime candidate to make the jump and is signed for two more years at an extremely team-friendly contract worth $750,000 annually.
The path is also clearing for two highly touted prospects in Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to graduate from the farm.
Travis Dermott may be tasked with sliding into the top-four to replace Gardiner next season. This is not surprising, considering the 22-year-old ranks third in Goals Above Replacement among Leafs’ defencemen this season. Additionally, Dermott has been consistent at creating zone exits and preventing zone entries at a high rate.
It may be a big loss for Toronto, however, there are ways to alleviate his loss and many are already within the system.
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