Toronto Maple Leafs: Predicting a Likely Jake Gardiner Replacement

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 21: Toronto Maple Leafs Defenceman Jake Gardiner (51) in warmups prior to the regular season NHL game between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs on February 21, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON. (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 21: Toronto Maple Leafs Defenceman Jake Gardiner (51) in warmups prior to the regular season NHL game between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs on February 21, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON. (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs season hasn’t even ended yet, but I thought, why not look ahead to something that’s likely imminent anyways.

Once the offseason kicks off, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a number of decisions to make. Of course, Mitch Marner’s contract sits at the top of the offseason to-do list for Kyle Dubas, and with so much money already invested in other top forwards, where’s the extra cash going to come from?

Well that’s when we take a look at the the player’s who are coming off the books for the Leafs–The free agent’s who will no longer go against the Leafs cap space (that is, if they choose not to resign them). And who sits at the very top of the UFA list? Jake Gardiner.

Now trust me here. I’m not saying at all that I want to get rid of Gardiner. He is a very solid defenceman and a great offensive producer. But with a current cap hit of $4.05 million and a growing interest in offensive defencemen, it’s more than likely that he’ll be able to fetch a high asking price on the market–a price that the Leafs simply won’t be able to afford.

If Gardiner asks for a reasonable price, then I’m all for the Leafs re-signing him. But it’s likely that he wont, so the new question becomes, who will be his replacement?

It’s never too early to look at options. So today, let’s throw some choices out there for a Gardiner replacement (or just some new blueliners)

What Needs to be Replaced

First off, let’s look at what the Leafs will lose out on if they let Gardiner walk. He has scored  29 points in 60 games this season, good numbers for a defenseman.  Gardiner is a an assist-machine, capable of scoring 30-40 assists in a season. He’s posted a career-high of 52 points last season, proving that he can elevate his game to impressive heights.

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He also ranks second among the Leafs’ average time on ice leaders, averaging 21:12 minutes, right behind Morgan Rielly,  and is the most used player at 5v5. Finding someone to play those kinds of minutes isn’t always easy. On top of that, replacing his offense is a big hole to fill. But the Leafs will have to get looking if they want to keep improving this roster.

Free Agency

When you lose a player to free agency, what’s the best place to look for a replacement? Free agency.

Now it’s not easy to predict who might be available come July 1st, since players can still re-sign with their teams before free agency.

However, for the sake of this argument, we’ll take a look at players who are likely to become UFA’s who the Leafs can take a look at.

Tyler Myers is a solid option for the Leafs, if they can pick him up at a decent price. The 6’8, 230 pound defenceman can add a lot to the blueline in addition to his size. Myers has nine goals and 18 assists on the season in 71 games.

Myers has also turned into Winnipeg’s Winnipeg’s go-to shutdown defender right now with the absence of Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey.

The downside is that like Gardiner, Myers will likely be looking for a pay hike for this upcoming market. If he does hit the market, it may be difficult to convince him to come to Toronto tight on cap space.

After Myers, the choices take a steep decline. Some other options include Braydon Coburn, Marc Methot, Anton Stralman, Adam McQuaid and even Roman Polak.

None of these guys is replacing what Gardiner brings to the team. They can be used to help bolster the Leafs defensive depth overall, but as far as replacements go, this year’s free agency class may be slim pickings in terms of affordability for quality.

So where else can the Leafs look?

The Trade Market

Once again, the trade market is hit and miss. One can only predict so much about it as there are many players who may be on the move, even if they are not on anyone’s radars.

A lot of the same trade bait that’s been linked to the Leafs will likely still come up in the offseason. These include names like Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk and Chris Tanev. If the Leafs lose Gardiner, they may be looking to take the trade route a little more seriously.

On top of those names, new names have emerged, like Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres and Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders.

Whether any of these guys are a good fit for the Leafs in terms of quality or price will be up to Kyle Dubas. But if Toronto wants to improve their defence, especially if they lose out on Gardiner’s services, trading may be the easiest route to find a gem. But if the Leafs want to keep it local, there’s one more place the Leafs check.

The Farm

Last but not least, the Leafs could always go straight to their own system and promote one of the Marlies.

The Leafs have a number of defensive prospects who are looking closer to being NHL-ready as the days go by, like Andreas Borgman, Timothy Liljegren and Calle Rosen.

Out of these three, Borgman and Rosen seem to be the most NHL-ready. Both of them have NHL experience already (Borgman played 48 games last season and Rosen had a four game stint) and they both have the potential to become solid top-four defencemen. If acquiring a new defenceman all together isn’t an option, these two both are ready to get an opportunity in the bigs.

Next. Time to Call Up Rasmus Sandin. dark

The third option is Timothy Liljegren, who is arguably the Leafs top prospect right now (I’d tie him with Rasmus Sandin). Despite battling injuries, he has 12 points in 34 games this season and was a key piece in the Marlies Calder Cup winning playoff run last season. He’s only 19 years old so he may not be NHL-ready yet, but he definitely has the highest potential, with a ceiling anywhere between a top-four defenceman or a top-pair defenceman.

If he continues to develop at the rate he’s been developing, a shot at the NHL next year can be a reality. The point is, the Leafs have a number of options to go to even if they let Gardiner walk.