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Free Agency Target: Jake Gardiner’s defensive issues might be overblown

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Contrary to his reputation, Gardiner offers steady defending with exceptional offence, and might be available at below market rate.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

“Gardiner was a dash-five. He had two giveaways. He fumbled the puck frequently and compounded his poor decisions. His passes refused to stretch, and when they did, it was for icings. When Babcock tapped No. 51 on the shoulder, 61 per cent of the shot attempts were being blasted at the visitors’ end.”

- Luke Fox, Sportsnet, April 26, 2018

“His giveaway in Game 7 will be the moment that stands out for most. And really, that Gardiner’s gaffe —an attempt at a reverse behind his net that turned into a Bruins goal— led to the game-winner was basically cruel poetry.”

- Kristina Rutherford, Sportsnet, April 25, 2019

This is the Jake Gardiner that exists in the minds of many, an offensively gifted but defensively questionable rearguard who can’t step up when the spotlight shines its brightest.

But the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent brings much more to the table than two games — two games out of the 577, both regular season and playoffs, that make up his NHL resume to date. For any team that is willing to look beyond two unfortunate nights in Boston, Gardiner offers the ability to log big minutes, spark offence through his passing and transition game, and surprisingly enough, provide a fair modicum of defensive stability.

Gardiner is not a net liability

At this point, Gardiner’s offensive capabilities are well known: a career-high 52 points in 2017-18 placed the Toronto blue-liner in the same conversation as the likes of Roman Josi (53 points) and Kris Letang (51 points). While he took a step backward in 2018-19, posting only 30 points in 62 games, his 1.26 even-strength points per 60 minutes were still good enough for 28th in the league among defenders who played over 100 minutes (just behind Jeff Petry at 19th with 1.35 P/60).

With the Leafs’ reputation, one might be inclined to think that Gardiner racks up the points because his team plays run-and-gun 7-6 games where defence is a taboo, but that’s hardly the case. With him on the ice, the Leafs enjoyed increased goal- and shot-share percentages than with him off of it, and while Toronto did allow slot shots at rates considerably greater than league average during his minutes, that was as much a systemic issue as it was the fault of any individual player, given that Gardiner’s personal heatmap doesn’t differ much from the team’s as a whole.

On-ice shot allowed location profile for Jake Gardiner (left) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (right).

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There is also one other factor that has to be taken into consideration when evaluating Gardiner: his primary (and we mean primary) defensive partner in 2018-19 was the much-maligned Nikita Zaitsev. Of his 1135:57 five-on-five minutes on the season, 811:30 was spent next to the Russian. In fact, Gardiner played more with Zaitsev at five-on-five than he did with Frederik Andersen (809:04).

Zaitsev essentially turned Gardiner from a good, if not great, defenceman into a player who was average at best and a hindrance at worst. Gardiner’s 55% shot-attempt share became 50% when skating with Zaitsev, and while luck certainly played a hand in Gardiner’s 78% on-ice goal-share statistic when freed from the Muscovite, the difference between a Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing and a tandem with Morgan Rielly or Travis Dermott was plain as day.

Jake Gardiner’s on-ice shot- and goal-share metrics with and without Nikita Zaitsev. CF%: percentage of shots for; GF%: percentage of goals for.

As a left-side defender who excels with capable partners, Gardiner would fill a need for the Montreal Canadiens. If the Canadiens were to acquire the Minnesotan, he would be trading the likes of Zaitsev for Shea Weber or Jeff Petry.

Gardiner’s strengths almost perfectly complement Weber’s weaknesses. Where the Man Mountain struggles with exiting the defensive zone with possession, Gardiner excels, and the American’s playmaking is perfect for a partner who prefers to shoot first and shoot often.

Should the Canadiens have eyes on the future and opt to keep Victor Mete with Weber, Gardiner’s game is very similar to that of Jeff Petry, potentially creating a very flexible pairing that can keep defenders off-balance. Regardless of deployment, Gardiner would offer an immediate upgrade over Mete and Brett Kulak in the Canadiens’ top four.

Nothing’s free in this world

With all that being said, the biggest obstacle to seeing Jake Gardiner in the bleu-blanc-rouge is likely to be the price tag that the first-time UFA would come with. Evolving Hockey projects Gardiner to eventually command a $6,946,296 AAV over seven years, and when looking at similar players in similar situations, this number appears fairly plausible. Gardiner doesn’t have the track record to expect John Carlson, Victor Hedman, or even Kevin Shattenkirk-type money, but at the same time, he’s a superior player to the likes of Marc Staal and Erik Johnson.

Cam Fowler is probably the best comparable we have to Gardiner. Although Fowler signed his current contract mid-season, he finished the final year of his post-ELC contract with career numbers of 561 GP, 53 G, 196 A, 249 points — almost identical to Gardiner’s current tally of 551 GP, 45 G, 200 A, 245 points.

Erik Johnson signed a two-year bridge contract between his ELC and intermediate contracts. ELC: entry-level contract; AAV: average annual value; % Cap: percentage of the salary cap.

If Gardiner receives the same contract as Fowler — the 8.67% cap hit — with an $83 million dollar cap, that would translate to an AAV of $7.20 million for the 2019-20 season.

However, Gardiner’s reputation among the fans as a defensive liability, one largely created by those aforementioned two nights in Boston, is also prevalent to some degree among the hockey leadership. After all, while Anaheim had enough faith in Fowler to sign him mid-season, Kyle Dubas and company likely viewed the potential departure of Gardiner as an acceptable consequence of the need to sign William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen — especially after the arrival of Jake Muzzin.

To this end, it wouldn’t be a shock if Gardiner’s value dropped to the $6.25-6.5 million AAV range, especially after the much-hyped Kevin Shattenkirk sweepstakes two seasons ago completely fizzled after the then-Capital entered free agency on the back of an extremely poor post-season performance.

If the interest for Gardiner simply doesn’t materialize in the way that it has in the past, especially with the likes of Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman also on the market, the soon-to-be 29-year-old Deephaven native may opt to bet on himself, taking a shorter term and a lower AAV in exchange for the ability to sign a long-term deal at age 32 or 33, having established himself as one of the NHL’s best rearguards in the interim. It’s a risky proposition for Gardiner, but could result in a team enjoying a very good player at bargain-bin prices for several seasons.

Ultimately, while Gardiner’s reputation may not put him at the forefront of Marc Bergevin’s “must-sign” list, the Canadiens’ general manager would be best served by keeping a close eye on how things develop with one of the best defencemen available in this year’s UFA cohort.

There’s no question that Gardiner can improve a Canadiens team that desperately needs an established defender on the left side, and if he can be had for a price that doesn’t hamstring the Canadiens from a salary-cap standpoint, that’s an opportunity that Bergevin will need to recognize and take.