Remember when the Maple Leafs had Francois Beauchemin and traded him for Jake Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul? Well, that’s a laugh (thank you Burkie).
Gardiner was the big off-season winner in Hogtown, getting the long term contract he deserved. The Leafs went the smart route and signed him for five years with an AAV of $4.05 million as opposed to the ever-popular bridge contract or even worse, trading the budding-superstar. Gardiner proved himself worthy of the money last season, and is poised for an even bigger role with the team this upcoming year.
After an uneventful and disappointing sophomore year where Gardiner only spent 12 regular season games on the Leafs (six in the playoffs after Kostka got hurt) and much of the time in coach Carlyle’s doghouse, expectations were tempered heading into 2013-14. Which Gardiner were we going to see? The freewheeling, swift, exciting guy we saw in his rookie season or a guy handcuffed again by his coaching stuff?
To start the season, Gardiner wasn’t looking the way fans were hoping he would. He was making defensive mistakes, wasn’t putting up points and still did not have the trust of the coaching staff. Trade rumours swirled and it looked like trading Gardiner could be the shakeup that Leafs front office wanted. But something happened after the Olympic break (coincidentally when the Leafs nosedived into the abyss *Not Gardiner’s fault*).
Gardiner became the Leafs go-to defenseman. He put up 14 points in his last 21 games – he only had 17 points in his first 59 games – and looked exactly like what every Leafs fan was hoping he would blossom into. He was getting more powerplay time and even some time on the penalty kill. His chemistry with Morgan Rielly was off the charts – literally (see the chart below, that star’s just screaming to escape into the universe).
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Gardiner’s super-strong second half is what garnered his big contract and what’s propelling him into 2014-15 with even bigger expectations.
We finally know that Gardiner is here to stay. He’s no longer an option to send down and he’s guaranteed a top-4 role on the defence. The reigns are coming off.
Expect Gardiner to stay with Franson on the second pairing on his left side, unless Franson gets bumped to the first pairing with Phaneuf (Phaneuf-Polak rumours make me think that won’t happen, however). The ultimate dream would be to see Gardiner and Rielly line up together because when they’re on the ice, amazing things happen, but that’s unrealistic (unless there’s a coaching change???).
He’ll continue to dominate games from a possession standpoint, and he’ll only get better as the season wears on. If you look at the chart below, you’ll notice that Gardiner’s relative corsi climbed immensely
in the second half of the season, and he was below 50 per cent in only seven of the final 23 games. (The heavy blue line is a rolling 10-game average and the bars are individual games). He finished the season with a 5-on-5 relative corsi of 5.7 per cent – 2.9 per cent better than the next best defenceman, Cody Franson.
It’s not unreasonable to expect Gardiner to maintain those kinds of numbers all season, as long as he’s not hampered by the coaching staff, and it doesn’t look like he will be. With the bump in confidence and most likely ice time, expect his point production to increase as well.
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His powerplay time should see a spike, and that could be the major deciding factor on how far his point total jumps. Although Franson and Phaneuf have manned the first powerplay unit the last few years, replacing Franson with Gardiner would make the powerplay only more lethal. Neither Phaneuf nor Franson is particularly quick on their feet and with Gardiner moving the puck and quarterbacking the powerplay, it could turn into a nightmare for opposing penalty killers.
As a 24-year-old with only two and a half years of experience in the NHL, the arrow is pointing up.
From a fantasy perspective, Gardiner is a third defenceman with the potential to become a number two. Last year’s 31 points were low for what people expected and with 14 in his final 21 games, he proved that he can be an effective point producer. Gardiner should be able to score 40 points this season and if he gets time on the first powerplay, that will be a guarantee. However, if you’re expecting 50 points from Gardiner because you’re a diehard Leafs fan, calm down the expectations. Only eight defenceman had 50 points last season. If you’re in a keeper and you’re not satisfied with your existing corps, Gardiner is a fine target.