There are options available to the Toronto Maple Leafs when they consider a new Jake Gardiner contract. They could offer him a long-term deal. They could try to convince him to take a cheaper deal, selling the idea that they can contend for a Stanley Cup. Or they could just move on. Moving on could mean waiting for his contract to expire like they did James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. It could mean trading him at some point this season.
A New Jake Gardiner Contract Could Hurt The Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s no doubt that Gardiner is a good defenseman. Sure he put in a real stinker in Game 7 of the Maple Leafs first-round loss to the Boston Bruins in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. But usually, he’s really good. And therein lies the problem, he’s usually good, but not always.
Gardiner’s current salary is just a little over $4 million a season. For what he does for the Maple Leafs, that’s a good deal for both sides. He had 52 points last year and averaged over 22 minutes a game. Both were career highs. He’s got one year left on that contract, and he’s motivated to be even better. If he is better an puts an end to his occasional blunders, it may be an easy decision for the Maple Leafs to re-sign him. If he continues to shine offensively but struggle at times in his own zone, the question of re-signing him becomes much more difficult.
A New Contract
Gardiner has one year left on his current contract. He’ll be a UFA next summer. If the Maple Leafs didn’t have to worry about a salary cap, they would probably sign Gardiner with a raise. With no money concerns, they could be content to let him play on a second pairing or lower as his game ebbs and flows with quality. It’s the salary cap that may prohibit the Maple Leafs from re-signing Gardiner.
William Nylander needs a new contract this year. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will both need new contracts next year. Those three will command around $25 million a season combined. That’s almost a third of the team’s salary cap space in just three players. If Gardiner has another 50+ point season, he could find himself entertaining seven-year $50 million dollar contract offers on the open market. That’s not something the Maple Leafs should be considering offering themselves.
Why Not Gardiner
The Maple Leafs already have a top pairing defenseman on the left side in Morgan Rielly. At best Gardiner is a second pairing player. He’s also an offensive-minded player, just like Rielly. The Maple Leafs also have another young player on the left side in Travis Dermott, who did not look out of place as a rookie last season.
The Maple Leafs have few questions on offence. They can score. Losing Gardiner isn’t going to hurt the team on the scoreboard. They allowed the third most shots against this season. No team has a roster complete with defensively sound players, but the Leafs are sorely lacking in that area. They don’t need Gardiner when they have Rielly ahead of him on the depth chart. They need players that might score less, but can also consistently keep the puck out of their own net.
There isn’t a lot of room for Gardiner, not at the salary he’s sure to get next season. The Maple Leafs would be better served shifting the money for Gardiner to the right side of the blueline to balance out the defence. Or spend it on a second pairing player that can be trusted to hold leads and shut down the opposition’s top lines.
Other Big Names
The Maple Leafs have a lot of cap room available for next season. They could make a big splash in this year’s free agency if they wanted to. John Carlson is a UFA and plays the right side. He may be on the Maple Leafs radar, but if he is, he’ll be looking for a deal worth seven or eight million a year.
The Maple Leafs may also make an attempt at signing John Tavares as they did with Steven Stamkos. If they have ideas of signing any of these players, they’ll need to start getting creative with their cap room starting next year with Matthews and Marner will need substantial pay raises. That means players like Gardiner may be on the chopping block.
Walk Or Trade
If the Maple Leafs manage to sign Tavares or Carlson, or both, they could decide to focus on next season at the expense of future seasons. That means keeping Gardiner for what they would hope is a long playoff run and risking losing him for nothing in the off-season. That didn’t work out for them this season with van Riemsdyk. They could have traded the big winger for a good return at the trade deadline and still lost in the first round.
The Maple Leafs could improve their defence from within or with cheaper UFAs than Carlson. Calvin de Haan and John Moore are two options available that shouldn’t cost more than what Gardiner is making now. Adding two or three defensemen could make Gardiner expendable at next year’s deadline. That would allow the Maple Leafs to get something for Gardiner without significantly damaging their playoff chances.
Newly appointed general manager Kyle Dubas will have an interesting few first months. He’s got a lot of rope available with $25 million in cap space to find a second line centre, two defensemen, and a couple bottom six forwards. How he and the Maple Leafs fare next season will only be a part of how he’s judged. How he manages his team and the salary cap next year is far more important. Spending now will make it harder for Dubas next year. But if the Maple Leafs want to improve on this season, they’ll need to add to their roster. That costs money and something will have to give eventually. That something is likely to be Jake Gardiner.
NASHVILLE, TN – OCTOBER 10: Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs plays against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on October 10, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)