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Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Re-signing Jake Gardiner should be a priority

There are plenty of rumours going around. The Toronto Maple Leafs were predicted to have a busy off-season and it’s ready to start before the Stanley Cup has even been lifted.

With two likely departures in Nikita Zaitsev and Patrick Marleau, the 2019-20 Leafs are starting to look fairly different compared to their first-round exit counterparts. There is no certainty as of right now, but a number of players, including the two mentioned, might be on their way out of Toronto and starting with new NHL franchises before training camp begins in September.

The shuffling of pieces across the lineup can have meaningful repercussions, but one piece that should stay put in Toronto is defenceman Jake Gardiner. Notorious among a certain type of fans, Gardiner has proven that he is not only more than a capable NHL defenceman, but a very good one.

The hard cap system that is currently active in the league prevents teams from keeping all of their very good players, but retaining Gardiner and convincing the player to stay in Toronto is something that Dubas should heavily consider. He’s a good player and if the Leafs want to contend for a championship in the upcoming years, as crazy as it sounds, they need good players.

When Gardiner was on the ice this past season, the Leafs were the better team in the most general sense. At even-strength throughout last season, the Leafs scored 61.46 per cent of the goals that happened while Gardiner was on the ice — leading all Leafs skaters in 5v5 GF%.

There could be some luckiness to getting the goal tally going his way, but diving deeper into how him being on the ice affects his team, Gardiner was the best option the Leafs had last season.

GP xGF/60 xGA/60 xGoals +/-
Jake Gardiner 62 2.90 2.43 +0.47
Jake Muzzin 30 2.94 2.63 +0.30
Igor Ozhiganov 53 2.37 2.13 +0.24
Travis Dermott 64 2.49 2.27 +0.21
Morgan Rielly 82 3.18 2.98 +0.20
Ron Hainsey 81 2.91 2.85 +0.07
Nikita Zaitsev 81 2.56 2.52 +0.04

data via evolving-hockey.com

Looking at on-ice expected goals per hour, the difference Gardiner makes is crystal clear. Not the best in creating offence or suffocating opposing scoring chances, the total tally between the two metrics is where he shines.

Through balancing both sides of the game, he stands on top in comparison among his defencemen peers.

Even if there are some visible hiccups in his play, the production is clearly there and he is able to keep that rate of production throughout his whole career with the Leafs.

Beyond just on-ice effects, Gardiner has been extremely consistent in his point totals. Averaging 0.44 points per game over his 551 NHL games played in eight years, even his lowest rate in 2014-15 of 0.3 Pts/GP and his highest in 2017-18 of 0.63 demonstrates a consistency throughout his career.

All of this is in the past though, and what the Leafs would be re-signing him for is what he could bring in the near future.

There are of course the injury concerns that got attention over last season — Gardiner suffered a back injury and never quite fully recovered. But there could certainly be worse additions to the roster next season, it’s certainly a risk but a worthwhile one.

From the player’s point-of-view, there is no risk in staying on this team. It has been widely reported that he would rather come back to Toronto than sign as a free agent somewhere else, staying with the hopeful cup contender and not having to live in a city like Edmonton is a bonus.

What this hypothetical contract extension would look like is somewhat clouded in mystery. EvolvingWild’s contract predictions has Gardiner’s new contract most likely a seven-year deal with a cap hit of around $6.95-million. Slightly too expensive and much longer than Leafs management would prefer, but again this is just a projection based on other contracts.

The length of the contract is what matters for this current Leafs team. Going long-term and pushing Gardiner well beyond his prime is not something that they could afford, but what they could afford is somewhere in the middle.

Contract Length Projected Cap Hit Projected Probablity
1 Year $4.35M 0.4%
2 Years $4.93M 3.0%
3 Years $5.89M 9.2%
4 Years $6.11M 9.2%
5 Years $6.46M 8.8%
6 Years $7.02M 23.4%
7 Years $6.95M 26.2%
8 Years $6.96M 19.8%

Leading in the term projection was the seven-year contract (26.2%), but a six-year contract (23.4%) is close behind. Neither of these options seem truly realistic for the Leafs unfortunately. Too expensive and to commit that long when there will be more contract negotiations in the near future feels too risky for the current management team.

What some Leafs fans can hope for is Gardiner signing to one of those less-probable short-term contracts that is projected to have a cap hit of around $6-million. It’s still a decent portion of their cap structure, but having the player for only a few years is worth whatever following move is necessary because of the cap.

It’s fairly evident that Gardiner gives the Leafs a better chance to win in the near future. He was arguably their best or second-best defenceman in seasons where they set the franchise record for wins. The two most successful regular seasons have come in the last two years and Jake Gardiner was a massive reason why.

If he were to return to Toronto on a justifiable short-term contract, the Leafs wouldn’t have the predicted holes on the blue line. No draft pick or prospect in return is necessary, bringing back Gardiner would just cost cap space and he would perform just like he has the past few seasons, like a top defenceman.

Read also: Should the Canucks sign Jake Gardiner? (CanucksArmy)

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  • Stan Smith

    Jake Gardiner is one of those players where the advanced stats and the eye test give you two different stories. As a result you get those that swear by the numbers, and talk about Jake as if he is an elite player, and those that see his mistakes, and think he is a terrible player. The numbers people use Jake as an example why you can’t go by the eye test, and the eye test people use him as an example of why you can’t just go by the numbers.

    So what is the answer? Who is the real Jake Gardiner? To me, the answer is somewhere in between, and I personally would lean a little more towards to eye test. The reason? All stats are not created equal. All shots are not equal. All saves are not equal. All turnovers are not equal. All mistakes are not equal.

    We all know that person who plays a sport, and plays it technically really well, but when the pressure is on, does not have the mental capability or the intestinal fortitude to perform under the pressure. We see this in goalies all the time. Some are great in regular season, but not so great in the playoffs, and vice versa.

    Jakes issues are in his inability to perform in pressure situations. His mistakes happen at the worst possible times. With the numbers treating everything as equal, they simply do not demonstrate that trend.

    I’m not suggesting the Leafs shouldn’t try and re-sign Gardiner. They shouldn’t get into a bidding war with other teams for him. You show numbers that state Jake will probably get around $7M on the open market. To me, that is way too high a price for him. I would not value him at anything over $5M, if that.

    I personally think the Leafs brought in Muzzin as much to replace Gardiner, as it was to strengthen their team this past season. I like Muzzin on the left side in the top 4 more than Gardiner. He puts up virtually identical numbers , .444 points per game for Gardiner, and .435 points per game for Muzzin. While playing much more solid defense, and playing better under pressure.

    I would much rather see the Leafs spend the money they would use on Gardiner, to find Rielly or Muzzin, a solid partner on the right side.