The Toronto Maple Leafs may be losing one of their most valuable defenseman in the offseason.
If that’s the case, Jake Gardiner will be sorely missed.
Just like last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs in the seventh game of their first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins. And, just like last year, Jake Gardiner was at the centre of a mishap that was a focal point of the season-ending loss.
Unlike last year, however, the future of Gardiner’s time in Toronto is far less clear, with his contract set to expire on July 1st. Based on the cap crunch that is likely to hit the Leafs in the offseason, that means he could become a casualty of the lack of available cap space to pay him.
If Gardiner’s time in Toronto is really over, then he will be greatly missed both on and off the ice. Should the Leafs find a way to keep him, they retain a key piece of their back end who, despite the occasional blunder, will help them attempt to achieve their goal of going deep into the playoffs.
No matter which option becomes the reality within a few months time, Gardiner’s status with the club will surely be a critical topic of conversation amongst Leafs fans. Until then, let’s take a deep dive into both options and determine which is more likely to occur.
Why he’s going
While Gardiner has no doubt remained a key component of the Leafs blueline for the past few seasons, the impending cap crunch is tough to ignore, which puts his chances at returning very slim.
Let’s get one thing straight: the Leafs are better with Gardiner in the lineup right now than without him. Toronto clearly missed his services when he went down with a back injury judging by the latter portion of the season.
But when a player makes quotes like the one listed below, it’s a reflection that the player is self-aware that he is unlikely to return. And despite his teammates acknowledging they hope to have him back (ala Morgan Rielly), it may not be in the cards.
Heading into the 2019 offseason, the Leafs have a few major pieces that require a new contract, including Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson among others. Gardiner is one of those key pieces, with reports suggesting he is looking for a deal that will pay him $7 million per season.
While it is true that the salary cap is going to jump to $83 million for next season, that still doesn’t leave very much wiggle room for the Leafs to comfortably fit Gardiner into the mix. Considering rumours of the aforementioned players asking price and the heft contracts already on the roster, then it becomes more unlikely that Gardiner can return.
If Gardiner does not return, the Leafs have reinforcements coming to help mitigate the loss.
Calle Rosen made big strides this season with the Marlies and made a strong impression in his brief stint with the big club at the end of the regular season. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are the Leafs’ top defensive prospects who have each progressed to varying degrees and are likely to get an extended look during the next training camp.
While Igor Ozhiganov is likely on his way back to the KHL, the Leafs still have a few, nice complimentary pieces in Justin Holl and Martin Marincin. Both didn’t get much playing time but have shown flashes of making an impact at the NHL level.
No doubt, it will be tough to see Gardiner sign with another team on July 1st, but it’s likely what will transpire this off-season. With the impending cap crunch looming and the plethora of defensive prospects needing an extended look with the big club, Gardiner’s 8-year tenure in Toronto is likely at its end.
Why He’s Staying
Or maybe not. Yes, there is a cap crunch that the Leafs need to deal with during the off-season, which is going to make things tight, but they can find a way to fit him into the picture. This season proved just how valuable he is to the Leafs blueline when he was forced to watch from the sidelines.
Let’s start with the basics. During the 18 games that Gardiner was out, the Leafs went 8-7-3 while allowing 65 goals against compared to 18 goals for. That’s roughly a 3.6 GAPG and a 3.8 GPG rate, respectively.
Prior to Gardiner being injured, the Leafs posted a 51.25 CF%, a 56.93 GF%, a 50.30 xGF%, a 51.91 SCF%, and a 52.30 HDCF% at 5v5. During his absence, those changed to 53.20 CF%, a 48.35 GF%, a 52.23 xGF%, a 56.66 SCF%, and a 54.77 HDCF%.
Obviously, these numbers don’t tell the full story and there’s the problem of the small sample size with Gardiner’s absence. But make no mistake about it, the Leafs really missed Gardiner during that stretch of the season.
From an offensive standpoint, Gardiner had another strong season as he recorded 3 goals, 27 assists, 13 primary assists, for 30 points. The latter stat was second among all Leafs defenders, marking the 4th consecutive season in which he has placed in the top two for scoring.
His underlying numbers are respectable as well at 5v5. He registered a 51.53 CF%, a 61.46 GF%, a 51.74 xGF%, 53.75 SCF%, a 55.10 HDCF%, and a 64.41 HDGF% during his injury-shortened season.
Sure he may be prone to making mistakes, which get amplified during big moments, but every defender is not free from errors. Gardiner is far from a perfect defenseman, but he is one that the Leafs have been very lucky to have.
Given the reports from Chris Johnston that Nikita Zaitsev was nearly moved at the trade deadline, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for the Leafs to try and move some bloated contracts. Combined with the possibility of Connor Brown’s salary also being on the move, there may just be enough to keep Gardiner in the fold.
Of course, the Leafs would hope he would take a hometown discount in the neighbourhood of $5.5 million AAV at the bare minimum. Given how much the Leafs value him on the back end, the idea of remaining on a competitive team with aspirations of deep playoff runs, he might be inclined to accept.
Regardless of how they go about doing it, the Leafs will need to do whatever they can to keep Gardiner into the fold because he is vital to the team’s success.
No matter which side of the equation you may be on in this debate, there’s no denying that what ends up happening with Gardiner in the off-season will be a defining moment for the Leafs. Whatever his decision is will dictate how the Leafs treat their pending RFAs and free agency.
There are legitimate reasons to believe that Gardiner’s days as a Toronto Maple Leaf are coming to an end. The salary cap crunch will not leave enough space to fit his contract, especially with the influx of young reinforcements nearing their arrival.
There are also legitimate reasons that Gardiner will be back in the Blue and White for the 2019-20 season and beyond. Given his strong on-ice contributions and the overall impact his absence had on the line-up, he’s a key piece of the Leafs blueline.
In any case, the topic of Gardiner’s future will continue to be a focal point of conversation as July 1st draws closer and closer. For Leaf fans, the clock is ticking.
All salary numbers are from Cap Friendly.