It looks like Jake Gardiner is as good as gone

The Maple Leafs have had a few days to think about their disappointing Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins that ultimately resulted in the team losing in the first round for the third consecutive year. Today, they cleaned out their lockers and faced questions from the media.

A key player to watch today was Jake Gardiner, who very likely played his final game as a Maple Leaf on Tuesday. Gardiner will be eligible to hit the open market as a free agent for the first time in his career come July 1 as the five-year, $20,250,000 deal he signed back in 2014 is set to come to an end.

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The Minnesota native will turn 29 years old in July, and, as I said, will be able to test free agency for the first time in his career. Originally drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2008 draft, Gardiner was acquired in a trade involving Joffrey Lupul and Francois Beauchemin back in 2011.

Gardiner has played his entire eight-season, 551-game career in Toronto. He ranked ninth all-time in franchise history for points among defensemen (245) and 27th among Maple Leafs all-time in games played. He’s seen a lot with this franchise, arriving during the confusing days of the Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel era and working his way through the transition into the Auston Matthews era as a contending team.

He’s the only player who was around for all of Toronto’s Game 7 losses to the Boston Bruins. He was there in 2013 when the team infamously blew the 4-1 lead, he was there last year when the team nearly pulled off a three-games-to-one comeback, and he was there this year when the team failed to win the series despite being up 3-2 with home ice in Game 6.

The last one likely stings the most for Gardiner as he, unfortunately, played a key role in the Leafs’ loss in Game 7 on Tuesday. To be fair to Gardiner, he was playing through a nagging injury throughout the series so he wasn’t his same effective self, but a couple of ugly plays by him and Travis Dermott resulted in goals for Boston that ultimately gave the Bruins the win.

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According to James Mirtle, Gardiner was emotional in today’s media availability, expressing that he’ll miss playing in Toronto.

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The reality with the salary cap is that not everybody can stick around, as we saw last year with long-time Leafs James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov. Unless something major changes, like Nikita Zaitsev’s contract getting dumped, it’s hard to imagine the Leafs having the cash to bring Gardiner back. And he knows that.

These comments, of course, are pretty telling about Gardiner’s future. I don’t think his poor play in Game 7 will be a factor in the decision to let him go or anything, but it’s obviously got to sting for Gardiner knowing that’s how his Leafs career ultimately came to an end.