The Jake Gardiner Conundrum
A healthy scratch for the third time this season on Saturday, Jake Gardiner’s future with Toronto continues to be hotly debated.
A 5-year, $20m extension, signed in the summer, made Gardiner the second highest paid blue liner on the Maple Leafs roster – but with a potential cap crunch coming this summer, his place on the team was pulled under the microscope again yesterday.
Whilst a knee jerk reaction is unlikely; at some point soon, the Maple Leafs are going to have to make a decision on the 24-year old’s future.
A highly touted prospect, Gardiner has two 30 point campaigns to his name – but with just 2 goals and 8 points through 31 games this year, his offensive output hasn’t been able to paper over the defensive cracks in his game, as it has in seasons past.
It’s not unusual for a young defenceman to take time to adapt to the rigors of the NHL, particularly those which come in ones own end, but an uncomfotable -12 on a team ranked 25th in goal against underlines the pressure Gardiner is under to keep his place – particularly with pending UFA Cody Franson making a strong start to the campaign, and the emergence of Morgan Reilly.
The big contract decisions don’t end with Franson either – Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik are both unrestricted free agents in the summer, while #1 goaltender Jonathan Bernier and Nazem Kadri will be restricted free agent.
The former pair might be considered replaceable, but Bernier was brought in to be the Leafs starter and Kadri is their best centre – making both key parts of the teams future, but ones who will also be looking for an increase on their current $2.9m salaries.
With a small group of depth players also entering some form of free agency this summer, it creates something of a contractual log jam for the Leafs – one that many feel is slowly pushing GM Dave Nonis and President Brendan Shannahan in to a decision regarding the enigmatic Minnesota native’s future:
Dreger highlights both sides of this particular coin – Toronto is paying for potential, which might excuse erratic form given he is only 24, but stints in the press box will only diminish Gardiner’s trade value; should the Leafs feel the numbers no longer add up.
The big question is of course where Toronto sees Gardiner in the scheme of things.
Is he a top pair defenceman in the future? That seems unlikely, but it’s easy to imagine him as a big part of the clubs top 4 down the road – if they can perceiver.
Again Dreger’s assessment is probably close to the mark – he’s still seems at least a year, probably two, away from really establishing himself; mainly due to holes in his defensive game and his up and down effort, both offensively and generally.
Gardiner does not possess Erik Karlsson levels of offensive talent – where gaffs in his own end can be overlooked – but he has the potential to become a player well worth that $4m in the future. If he’s allowed to develop that is:
Again Dreger’s point is not hard to miss – Gardiner’s status as a ‘blue collar prospect’ comes with a dark side when the chips are down; something we’re seeing this season.
Perhaps it’s his apparent inability to really kick on and build on those two 30 point seasons that is concerning – showing flashes of talent and supreme skating skill, but still unable to really put it together consistently.
On a team weak in its own end, clinging to hopes of offensive prowess at the cost of $4m of cap space might not be an option.
Currently 7th in the East, Toronto may be in striking distance of Montreal, Tampa and Detroit atop the Atlantic – but also have a surprisingly sprightly Florida team on their tail (and with two games in hand) whilst the accepted wisdom is that Boston won’t remain in the doldrums all year.
The Maple Leafs are a team who can make the post season – but equally seeing them miss out by ‘a couple of points’ to finish 9th or 10th wouldn’t surprise anyone either, and their sagging defence is unlikely to be able to compensate should their electric offence falter at any stage.
Toronto knows all too well the pain of a cold streak at the wrong time.
As such, Gardiner still has the cache to be part of a deal for proven performers and parts which could help the team – perhaps garnering a defensive defenceman to solidify a blue line in need of more than a band aid.
Acquiring a quality D man is tough in the current market, there are very few available – but offering a good prospect defenceman like Gardiner might open some doors.
But again it comes down to Toronto’s vision of where Gardiner fits, and what they’d want in return and whether other prospects like Petter Granberg can fill the holes in this line up more effectively than the former Ducks prospect can.
It’s not a decision many will envy Nonis and Shannahan for having to make. Dealing young players is always a gamble and a quick look at Tyler Seguin’s resurgence in Dallas might tell you all you need to know about giving up on ‘troubling’ young talents too easily.
With the cap expected to increase slightly, and ‘replaceable’ players like David Booth off the books come July, Toronto could get creative and make room for Gardiner and the rest of their key free agents – but as long as Gardiner is struggling to hold down a regular place in the line up, his $4m contract is likely to be painted as another weight around the Leafs neck.
Unfortunately that portrait will only diminish his trade value the longer the question stays open – is Jake Gardiner a part of the Leaf’s future?