The Maple Leafs and Jake Gardiner have shaken hands on a 5-year contract worth $4.05 million a season.
It’s a similar deal to that of Victor Hedman and Niklas Hjalmarsson, both of whom got around $4 million a season for the next five years coming off their ELCs. Roman Josi recently signed for four million per over 7 years. The Leafs have bought a year of Gardiner’s UFA eligibility, making him a UFA at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Gardiner posted 31 points in 80 games last season, good for 45th in the League among defencemen (and tied with Dion Phaneuf). It was shaping up to be a bit of a down year offensively for Gardiner — he wasn’t alone among the Leafs D, with Phaneuf and Gunnarsson’s shots and point totals well down from their norms, and Franson’s 5v5 production well down – as the Leafs even strength struggles seemed to be particularly crippling for their defencemen’s production levels. The Leafs started more shifts in the defensive zone than any other team last season to the point where Morgan Rielly’s 47% offensive zone starts were the “softest” among the group. The Leafs also couldn’t consistently cycle the puck effectively; that inability to work the puck low and kick it high to the point, in combination with the long spells of sustained own zone time, meant their volume of point shots generated was strikingly low for large chunks of last season.
That one aspect changed for the better somewhat when Carlyle and the staff seemed to give Rielly and Gardiner a bit of a greenlight down the stretch while encouraging more defensive involvement in the offense in general. 14 of Gardiner’s (45%) points came in the final 18 games of the regular season (just 23% of his total games last year). Individually, it’s perhaps not surprising Gardiner had a bit of a slow start given 2012-13 was something of a lost year for him; his injury down with the Marlies preceded struggles to find his form with the big club and he played just 12 games of NHL regular season action in the lockout-shortened year.
Gardiner’s obviously just scratching the surface in terms of what he could achieve offensively; it’s one thing talking about it and another getting there, but 45 pts should be no problem for a defenceman of his talent level in his prime. It’s up to Gardiner now to play his way into deserving this long-term commitment. His natural talents are obviously high end, he’s the Leafs‘ best corsi player, he played over 21 minutes a night last season (2nd behind only Dion), but he’s like many other defencemen his age when it comes to finding season-long relative consistency at a tough position, especially in terms of his decision making and his one on one battles in the tough areas of the ice — Corsi numbers put aside, that stuff matters if Gardiner wants to take the next step.
What’s clear though is that Gardiner is a part of the solution to what ails this team in terms of possession. He’s a new-era defenceman. The persistent narrative about Morgan Rielly potentially making Gardiner expendable is nonsense; I think everyone can agree Gardiner can be a frustrating player, but there’s no such thing as a team having too many young, talented, mobile puck-movers/rushers in the modern game. So is the narrative about Carlyle hating this kid, somehow still out there despite the minutes he played last season.
Relevant (Dubas on what makes a good defenceman):
@ShutdownLine 1- ability to solve problems with puck in defensive zone and progressively move puck up ice (skating or passing).
— Kyle Dubas (@kyledubas) June 17, 2014
With that, the Maple Leafs appear to have tied the finishing bow on their off-season work, barring an unforeseen trade. This will be good value if Gardiner takes the next step he’s clearly capable of taking. He’s already producing at a reasonable rate with good underlying numbers, and it would be shocking if the best isn’t yet to come.