Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Player Previews: Jake Gardiner

Last time we saw Jake Gardiner on the ice, things weren’t going so great for him. It’s probably pretty safe to say that was his worst game as a Leaf, and not the kind of performance you want to put up when the playoffs are on the line, and you are stuck reflecting on it throughout the summer.

The good news is that Jake Gardiner has a new son to distract him, and on top of that he’s a pretty darn good player and should be capable of rebounding from that ugly experience. My one hope for the audience of this article is that somehow we can land on the universal understanding that Jake Gardiner is very good hockey player, and a good defenseman, but the way he plays may annoy some of you to no end. Can we land on that? Probably not.

Since there’s an audience that doesn’t want to discuss what Jake Gardiner does well on the ice, we’ll give them something before they hit the eject button on this post. This is Jake Gardiner’s contract year. The Leafs are going to have a very challenging summer fitting in contracts for Marner, Matthews, and who knows, maybe Nylander still hasn’t signed by then. There is a real chance that we are looking at the last year of Jake Gardiner as a Leaf, and how the Leafs proceed around that will be pretty important. We’ll get to more of that later, you’re going to have to hear about how good Gardiner is if you want to discuss trading him. (And sorry Facebook, he’s worth more than a couple of pucks and saying such just makes you look stupid.)

So at a first glance there was a bit of a decline for Jake Gardiner last season when it came to both Goals For and Corsi For, both which can likely be attributed to Jake’s upward trend in icetime, and Mike Babcock’s trust in the Gardiner/Zaitsev pairing. Gardiner found himself playing almost a minute more of icetime per night last season, and while there was a decline is his numbers, his goals for was still very much on the positive side of things, while his shots ratio was pretty much average.

Gardiner With TOI With CF% With Gardiner CF% Without CF% Without Gardiner
Nikita Zaitsev 880:49 48.94 48.89 41.81
Connor Carrick 182:37 49.85 49.54 53.47
Roman Polak 177:25 46.84 49.51 48.36
Ron Hainsey 126:10 44.05 49.79 48.2
Morgan Rielly 83:40 61.83 48.56 50.06
Travis Dermott 43:00 51.25 50.16 55.08
Andreas Borgman 40:28 46.67 48.78 50.47
Martin Marincin 22:07 42.5 69.23 50
via naturalstattrick.com

There is little doubt that when Mike Babcock sets his mind to a defensive pairing he sticks with it, but at the same time, I can’t help but stare at those small sample results with Rielly or Dermott and think now might be the time to try pairing a Gardiner with one of the other lefties and see if they can’t load up the top four.

The previous season had Gardiner playing with Connor Carrick as his primary partner, with better results, but with increased sheltering. In fact, even when Gardiner and Zaitsev were together it wasn’t as tough competition as he would have faced in 2017-18, and most of Gardiner’s toughest opposition would have come when he was paired with Roman Polak, a pairing that did surprisingly okay together.

2016-17 Gardiner With TOI With CF% With Gardiner CF% Without CF% Without Gardiner
Connor Carrick 681:31 54.31 51.24 49.61
Nikita Zaitsev 316:34 48.01 53.01 49.75
Roman Polak 201:04 50 52.28 47.3
Alexey Marchenko 73:30 44.53 45.56 51.16
Matt Hunwick 68:13 49.28 52.25 49.52
Morgan Rielly 56:37 53.72 51.77 50.18
Martin Marincin 47:46 62.5 50.91 49.25
Frank Corrado 15:55 46.88 55.77 46.15

While all signs point to Rielly/Hainsey and Gardiner/Zaitsev remaining intact this season, I can’t help but feel that Dermott, Rielly, and Carrick might all be stronger options for optimizing Jake Gardiner, especially if Zaitsev struggles again this season.

via C.J. Turtoro’s Tableau Dashboard

Another interesting story on Jake Gardiner is how drastically his play has swung over the past couple of seasons. Being used in the more defensive capacity has agreed with Gardiner, and while he’s not the player I want to see pinned down in the Leafs zone, nor do I fully trust him to make the correct decision defending against an odd man rush, he’s been capable of stepping up into the role that has been asked of him.

via C.J. Turtoro’s Tableau Dashboard

While Gardiner’s defensive game improved, he also managed to put up career high offensive numbers last year, with bests in assists and points. A large part of this probably can be attributed to his love (and the Leafs love in general) of the stretch pass. And when it came to exiting the Leafs zone last year, Gardiner was the player leading the way for the Leafs, although it’s worth noting the higher fail and icing rate as well, but that comes with the territory.

So at this point we should all be feeling pretty good about Jake Gardiner as a second pairing defenseman, right? (Sigh, there’s no pleasing some of you.) This brings us to the question of what to expect from Jake Gardiner for this season, and how he fits into the future, and both of these are fairly loaded questions.

Jake Gardiner is unquestionably one of the top two defenders on the Leafs, along with Morgan Rielly, and with a lot of question marks after those two players, I can’t really blame Mike Babcock for taking a divide and conquer approach to ensure that the Leafs can salvage two decent pairings. Additionally, all the other hope for higher quality defenders seem to be coming from the left side of the blueline as well, with Andreas Borgman, and Travis Dermott looking ready to be solid NHL regulars, and Calle Rosen making a strong case that he’s worth another look this season. You’d hope that over time some of these talented defensemen will find their way into pairings with Gardiner and Rielly, but while we’re being optimistic we can hope for more from players like Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Carrick as well.

Reality is that Gardiner is staying with Zaitsev, and the rise of young talent like Dermott and Borgman is more likely to make Gardiner expendable by the trade deadline or at the end of the season. Gardiner is likely to find himself priced out of Toronto unless creative cap solutions can be found with players like Marleau or Zaitsev instead. Similar to the van Riemsdyk situation last year, Gardiner will likely be gone even if a lot of us don’t want him to be. The contracts that seem to be most comparable to what Gardiner might get are the deals for Keith Yandle and Cam Fowler, and both of those would put Gardiner in the $6.5M per year range as an unrestricted free agent. The Leafs probably don’t have that money, and are probably fine with running a Rielly, Dermott, Borgman left side, provided the young defensemen progress this year.

That really brings us to what to the Leafs could get in trade for Gardiner, and that’s a scary thing to address in the preseason, so I won’t, but I will say I’d take fewer than six assets, but hopefully a couple better ones.

For now, we’ll focus on how Gardiner is here. He will good for 20 minutes a night. He will see power play time, and a lot of 3v3 overtime as well. He’ll be one of the heavier point shots, and one of the three defensemen we can count on for chucking the puck up the ice to a streaking Auston Matthews. We’ll count on a lot of talk about how he wasn’t playing his man close enough in the defensive zone, and we’ll ignore how he wins races to loose pucks that start fast breakouts from the Leafs zone.

In short, Jake Gardiner is very good, but we’re probably in the final months of seeing him in a Leafs uniform.

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