It’s almost August, and Jake Gardiner has still not been signed to a contract. What’s going on that’s holding up a deal, and who could be the team that puts pen to paper?
We’ve reached the point of the NHL offseason where there is basically nothing left to talk about. All the big trades have been made, the draft is long gone, the season is still a ways away and all the high-end free agents have been signed.
However, the latter is not entirely the case this offseason with plenty of talented free agents still on the market as August draws ever closer. Chief among them is defenseman Jake Gardiner.
When free agency started, the argument could easily be made that Gardiner was the best defensive unrestricted free agent on the market. In eight seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Gardiner was one of the staples on the right side, putting up 245 career points in 551 NHL games, including 125 points in his last 224 games.
Those are impressive offensive point totals for a defenseman, and his defensive play still holds up enough to justify his occasional shortcomings in his own zone. He was the eighth-best defenseman in the league in xGPM/60 which measures his impact on the ice offensively and defensively.
The hold up is almost certainly Gardiner’s injury history, specifically the issues that he’s had with his back recently that caused him to miss 20 games at the end of last season heading into the playoffs. Once the playoffs concluded, he said he was not 100 percent for the playoffs and wasn’t sure if surgery would be needed, which certainly scared teams off once July 1 rolled around.
But even with his injury history, that cannot be the only reason that all 31 NHL teams are not jumping all over the opportunity to add a top-four defenseman into their lineup without having to pay any assets in a trade. The problem has to lie in the contract, obviously in either the price and/or the term.
Gardiner just turned 29 years old on July 4, and this is his last chance to lock down an expensive, long-term contract as he enters the final years of his prime. But with his injury history, there is little chance that a team is willing to risk having dead money in a few years for their lack of caution.
The potential solution here is a shorter-term contract but loaded in money as a compromise. So what could that look like? On his last contract, Gardiner signed a five-year contract worth $20.25 million, giving him a cap hit of $4.05 million per year.
It’s unlikely for there to be a scenario where Gardiner is willing to take less than that, especially if it’s for a shorter term. The contract would likely come out to be around four years in length and at around $6 million per year in order to give Gardiner enough of a raise on his previous deal to entice him.
There is not a chance that Gardiner starts the season still a free agent. So who will be the team that takes a chance on Gardiner’s injury history and adds to their defense corps? The prime candidates that have been rumored have almost all been out of the Atlantic division, with teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings reportedly interested and even the possibility that the Toronto Maple Leafs bringing him back.
The problem with the Maple Leafs is that they’re incredibly cash-strapped, and likely won’t be able to afford what Gardiner demands especially with the Mitch Marner negotiations going on. For the Red Wings, there’s no point in risking more dead money on the books for an improvement that won’t matter until at least two years down the road.
The real contenders look like the Sabres and Canadiens since they both have the need and the cap space. The Canadiens lack a true top-four left-handed defenseman to play alongside Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, and Gardiner would be perfect to fit the bill.
The Sabres have had a great offseason, and their defensive core finally looks stable, especially on the right side defense. Adding Gardiner to that left side equation could set the Sabres up for possible playoff contention as soon as this season.