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.
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):
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.