We’re a few days from entering week three of free agency in the NHL. A handful of second-tier options remain available on the open market at this point. One of the names that stand out is defenseman Jake Gardiner. The former Toronto Maple Leaf defender remains without a deal as the top blueliner to hit the open market this summer.
It’s surprising it has taken this long for Gardiner to find his next team, but there are some legitimate concerns with his future. At the top of the list is the back injury that he battled all last season with the Leafs. After the season he said he was not 100% for the playoffs and wasn’t sure if surgery would be needed. Teams could be scared off by this and are balking at any long-term contract he may be looking for. He also just turned 29-years-old, so when you combine that with the injury it’s easy to see why reports have indicated he’s not finding the term he desires at this point.
Nothing yet to report on free agent Jake Gardiner. Highly-skilled #mapleleafs defenseman has multiple options, but term seems to be biggest issue coming off a back injury that has actually healed quite nicely since the season— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) July 1, 2019
On a long-term deal, Gardiner didn’t make sense for the Buffalo Sabres to explore. His age didn’t line up with the core of the roster and there’s not a big enough need to spend big on the left side of the defense. The plot changes, however, if a short-term deal is a possibility. If the Gardiner camp is willing to take a three-year deal, then the Sabres should absolutely be in on trying to make it happen.
During his last season with the Leafs, Gardiner was beaten up by fans. I’m sure we all remember that one game that fans booed him every time he touched the puck in his home building. He was the scapegoat in Toronto for their shortcoming on defense. Gardiner isn’t the perfect defenseman in his own end of the ice, but he was easily one of their best on the blue line along with Morgan Rielly last season.
He was the best defenseman on the team in on-ice expected goal percentage (52.1%) and relative expected goal percentage (3.3%) for the Leafs last season according to Moneypuck. The two seasons prior he was second in on-ice xG% among all defensemen for them. He was the best defenseman again in relative xG% during the 2016-17 season.
Even when you look at Evolving Hockey’s RAPM data from this past season, Gardiner graded out very well. He was the eighth-best defenseman in the league in xGPM/60 which accounts for his impacts on the ice offensively and defensively.
The isolated impact chart below from Micah McCurdy paints an accurate picture of the type of player Gardiner is. He’s going to help generate offense for you and be an average to slightly above average player defensively. He’ll also be able to step in as the Sabres quarterback on the second power play. The numbers show he’s much better at it than either Brandon Montour or Colin Miller.
Gardiner would fit right in with what Jason Botterill is building on his blue line. He’s an elite puck-moving defenseman that can play with pace and get involved in the attack. The Leafs are going to miss his outlet passing with the style of game he plays. This sequence below starts with an excellent break out pass and is finished off by a nice pinch in the offensive zone.
Gardiner shows great patience and picks out a perfect pass to Patrick Marleau. He also keeps the puck in at the blue line, which leads to the Matthews tying goal.— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) February 20, 2019
Say what you want about him, Jake Gardiner is valuable to this hockey team. pic.twitter.com/Z0HfGaxltB
Here is another outstanding stretch pass right on the money to William Nylander that resulted in a goal against the Anaheim Ducks.
Better look, via the Leafs, of Jake Gardiner's ridiculous stretch pass to spring William Nylander.pic.twitter.com/RnyvZVf7YW— Faizal Khamisa (@SNFaizalKhamisa) February 6, 2018
Building a blue line full of these players that can generate offense from the back end with their shooting and passing is the new way of today’s NHL. It’ll allow the Sabres to get the puck out of their end quickly and get back on the attack offensively.
Crowded Blue Line
The other side of the coin here is that the Sabres blue line is crowded and adding another piece to it may not make a lot of sense to some. As of now, Rasmus Dahlin, Lawrence Pilut, Marco Scandella, and Matt Hunwick are all under contract for next season on the left side. Jake McCabe is a restricted free agent that plays on the left as well.
McCabe’s name has been in the rumor mill this offseason being tied to the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers in various trade discussions. The Sabres are certainly exploring the trade market on the former second-round pick. Pilut is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a shoulder injury and Hunwick could be waived to clear the log jam in training camp.
Scandella is the interesting one here. He has one year remaining on his contract with a $4 million cap hit. I’m sure there’s a team that would be willing to take on Scandella for one year in a cheap deal, but is that what Botterill wants to do? The Pilut injury and McCabe trade discussions could mean that the Sabres want to keep Scandella around to fill in for injury voids throughout the season.
Getting back to Gardiner, you can see where the spot for him on the roster opens. If McCabe or Scandella is moved prior to the season, there’s a need for another left-shot defenseman with Hunwick out of the picture. Adding Pilut’s injury on top of that, there’s a lack of talent on the left side of the Sabres blue line behind Dahlin.
When Pilut does return, the Sabres could have a left side that goes with Dahlin, Gardiner, and Pilut in their top six. Leaving either Scandella, McCabe or even Hunwick as the extra defenseman. There’s also a possibility of other injuries during the season, so having a deep blue line isn’t a bad thing.
At this point, the Sabres will have to note their cap space as well. According to Cap Friendly, they only have $5.12 million in space with Evan Rodrigues, Jake McCabe, and Linus Ullmark all still without contracts. Waiving a few players like Vladimir Sobotka could clear up some space, but not a lot. Also, a trade involving Ristolainen would clear some room with his $5.4 million going out the door if they don’t bring back a player with a big contract as well.
Another thing to consider is they can place Zach Bogosian and his $5.14 million on long-term injured reserve to start the season and free up more space if needed. The entire point is the Sabres can make a contract with Gardiner work if they really want to. They can find money this season and have a lot coming off the books next summer.
The Evolving Hockey’s contract projection has Gardiner at roughly a $5.7 million cap hit on a three-year deal and $6 million on a four-year deal. Even if you go with the $6 million AAV, the Sabres won’t be in a position where it’s realistically not an option for them to make it work with the cap this season.
Adding Gardiner to the blue line on a short-term deal will complete an impressive rebuild of the defense group by Jason Botterill and give them the best defense corp they’ve had in years.