Hi Kids! Let’s rap!
*spins a chair around and straddles it*
I want to talk to you about one of the most divisive Leafs today, the one that many of you love, and a seemingly equal number of you hate. I’m not here to spark that debate, but will say that the love him people more closely align to my point of view while I think the hate him group raise very valid concerns about his defensive play (such as his inability to make the correct decision on any odd man rush).
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. We are going to ignore all of our personal feelings on Jake Gardiner and instead treat him as a player who is valued by the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, and as a player who is likely to hold significant interest as a rental player around the NHL. After all is said and done, you can dust off your melee weaponry and have at it in the comment section. B
Before we get to the rental market, let’s look at the options that involve keeping Jake Gardiner. For the health of some of you, I’ll try to keep it brief. I don’t want to be held liable if you have a stroke on this website.
Scenario A: The Leafs Sign Jake Gardiner
The Leafs lock up an asset, and move forward with Rielly, Gardiner, Muzzin, and Dermott as their top four defenseman, hopefully adding Sandin and Liljegren to the mix and everything is sunshine and farts.
Obviously there are a lot of catches to that.
First, if you’re a big fan of age curves, with a healthy dose of risk aversion, this Hockey Graphs article will scare you off of Jake Gardiner. Statistically it seems that Jake Gardiner’s best years are likely behind him (I can hear you typing “what best years?” right now). Gardiner will be 29 at the start of the next season, and while that shouldn’t be too different from what we got out of him at 28, I’m guessing this won’t be a one year deal.
Secondly, the salary cap is a very real problem, in that the Leafs have an outstanding roster and we have to pick and choose on non core players, a very nice problem to have. Jake Gardiner is no longer a part of the core Leafs, and if Toronto commits to him, that means some very difficult decisions need to be made on Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Nazem Kadri, and to a lesser extent, on Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and Zach Hyman. Once Marner signs, it’s going to be decision time on who stays and goes, and justifying the 29 year old defenseman over most of these players with the exception of Zaitsev and Brown, is pretty hard.
On the other hand, do the Leafs want to take a step backwards on defense after getting it to a good place with Muzzin? That’s a good argument, and I have time for listening to it, but personally I’m hesitant on re-signing Gardiner.
Scenario B: Internal Rental Jake Gardiner
Hanging onto James van Riemsdyk absolutely looks like a mistake after the Leafs failing to make it to the second round of the playoffs. Throw-in the fact that Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, Roman Polak, etc. could have been rentals, and the hindsight looks pretty bad.
The thing is, internal rentals are always going to look like a bad thing until they the Leafs progress to our predetermined expectations. Maybe I’m setting the bar too high, but you hang onto Gardiner if you think he can put you in the finals over his replacement. Now, we’ll deal with what a Gardiner replacement looks like in scenarios C and D, but the reality is that overall, all things considered, offense/defense/locker room presence/etc. it’s unlikely that Gardiner leaves and is replaced by someone equal. You have to assume the Leafs are looking at internal replacements, and do you feel that keeping Gardiner gives you a significant advantage over playing Dermott up in the lineup and running Calle Rosen or Martin Marincin on the bottom pairing?
Like Scenario A, I’m hesitant to go with it, because I’m generally fond of mystery boxes, and have become too used to thinking of the future instead of trying to be most competitive now. I don’t want to keep Gardiner at the cost of letting him walk for nothing in the summer, but…
I also think he’s had to live through some pretty shitty Leafs teams, and perhaps he deserves a chance to try and win. This can easily be dismissed by reminding ourselves that this is a business, but cutting emotion out of sports means the robots win.
Scenario C: Let Teams Negotiate an Extension with Jake Gardiner
This is all about maxing out the value on Gardiner. It’s pretty straight forward, if that team doesn’t feel that they are trading for Jake Gardiner rental, they are trading for Jake Gardiner defenseman of their future, Toronto is going to get it’s best return.
Potentially Toronto can be exploring a Jake Muzzin type package for Gardiner, and the end result of all this will be the Leafs upgrading from Gardiner to Muzzin and picking up another year of an affordable defenseman for a prospect and pick shuffle. What does Toronto do with those assets, well we’ll explore that in a bit, but at this point it should be clear that I’m advocating for the Leafs trading Gardiner.
Scenario D: Rent Out Jake Gardiner
Yeah, this is pretty much the same as Scenario C, but probably not getting as much a return. I approve of it, but would also consider…
Bonus Scenario E: Rent Out Jake Gardiner Now & Try to Re-Sign Him July 1st
Maximize what you can get for Jake Gardiner on the rental market, but double back around to him on July 1st and see if he wants to be a Leaf. I’d be incredibly cautious around term and would want a discounted contract to make it work, (I’m not going to get into specifics), but this is probably the thinking outside the box option. It might not appeal to Jake Gardiner who would get cut out of a playoff run, and it certainly won’t appeal to whichever Leaf that is dealt to make the salary cap work, but if the purpose of this post is to float every idea under the sun, here’s one you might not have considered.
Possible Returns and Using Assets
Let’s just start with the fact that a Jake Gardiner rental doesn’t make sense unless a first round pick is involved. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to say that the Leafs wouldn’t have a hard time finding that. Even if you start looking at 2nd round picks + B prospects, I’d probably prefer to take my chances with Gardiner as an internal rental. It’s safe to say that return is the great equalizer in this.
Probably the most recent example of a defenseman of Gardiner’s skill level being dealt at the deadline is Kevin Shattenkirk going to Washington (along with Copley) in exchange for warm bodies, a 1st and a conditional 2nd. Coincidentally, that same year Ron Hainsey was dealt as a rental for a 2nd and a prospect. I guess the lesson is that it’s a sellers market when it comes to anything resembling a legitimate defenseman.
The other thing about getting a return for Gardiner is that, there’s nothing saying that a potential first couldn’t then be flipped in another deal to upgrade the Leafs (again, ideally not a rental, I’m not a fan of rentals.), but a 1st that can be used to acquire an under contract defenseman, or even if that first frees up the Leafs to deal their 2nd or a prospect that they otherwise would have kept, a Gardiner deal only promotes further activity.
Trading Gardiner for a first and picking up Nick Jensen using a 2nd as the primary asset in the deal, would be a net win for the Leafs, even if it is rental in/rental out.
Perhaps that wishful thinking, and perhaps the devil you know is always more appealing and there is something to be said for loyalty, but logic points to exploring the trade market instead of meeting with Gardiner’s agent to explore a new contract.
Let’s start off with the fact that the Leafs will likely be looking at the Western Conference as their target, and go down through the list…
Calgary- With Giordano, and Hanifin occupying the left side spots in the top four, it’s hard to imagine that Gardiner comes in to sit on the third pairing. We’ll skip past this one.
Winnipeg- Despite the fact that they’ve been rumoured to be focused on a second line center, and or more scoring up front, the Jets left side of the blueline is pretty underwhelming, especially with Josh Morrissey out. Little doubt that Gardiner could be a fit.
San Jose- Karlsson, Burns, Vlasic is a pretty good start to a blueline, and Braun, Dillon, and Heed fill in the rest nicely, with Simek as a solid 7D. Probably not interested in Jake.
Nashville- They look pretty set on the blueline. They’ve already dealt a 2nd for Brian Boyle, and Gardiner would slot in on their third pairing. This ain’t it chief.
Vegas- Oh yeah, they should absolutely be all over Jake Gardiner. In fact, Vegas seems like a team that would seriously look at negotiating an extension. Ironically, if I was a betting man, I’d look at Vegas.
Dallas- Yeah, the team that added Polak and Carrick is definitely interested in adding another Leafs defenseman.
*Looks at Stars defensive depth chart* Oh, maybe they are interested. After Klingberg and Heiskanen, there isn’t a lot to be excited about, although I might be underselling Lindell, but Roman Polak on the second pairing is a bad look.
Minnesota- Local boy goes home is a story we can all support Jake Gardiner in. Gardiner could definitely slot in to their second pairing without anyone batting an eye.
So basically, 4 of the 7 most likely playoff participants in the West could be a fit for Jake Gardiner. It’s hard to imagine that the bubble teams in the West are going to be aggressively adding, but I guess never say never, nor should we fully exclude the Eastern Conference options, though I can’t imagine Boston, Montreal, or Tampa would be entertained.
If the market is limited for Gardiner, perhaps we can forgive Dubas for not moving Gardiner, as it seems like a lot of eggs to have in the Winnipeg, Dallas, Vegas, and Minnesota basket. On the plus side, all four of those teams still own their first round pick.
Count on Jake Gardiner playing for the Leafs in the playoffs, but somewhere else next season. It’s the straight forward, all signs point to this standard hockey decision, and as much as we want to hold Kyle Dubas to a higher standard, he’s the one who has to stand by whatever bold decision is made. With Gardiner there is added factor of no matter what he decides to do, he’s going to piss off a large chunk of the Leafs fanbase (which I hope he doesn’t care about) but also quite possibly a chunk of the Leafs organization (who he probably has to care about).
To say that Gardiner is polarizing is an understatement, and I’m sure the comments this post will receive on Facebook will prove that, though I assure you, guy holding a fish in your profile pic, that Jake Gardiner is in fact worth more than a bag of pucks.