For all the improvement the Toronto Maple Leafs showed this season, it became clear that the club is at least two big pieces away from legitimately contending for a Stanley Cup.
James Reimer did all that he could to erase doubts that he is capable of carrying the load in goal, so now the most notable omission from the championship blueprint is a top line centreman.
It has been proven time and again that in the salary cap era it is becoming more and more difficult to acquire a player of that calibre. Realistically, you need to draft them yourself, which is made difficult when you don’t pick until the 21st position of the entry draft.
This is where Jake Gardiner comes into play for Dave Nonis and the Maple Leafs. He is perhaps the club’s most coveted prospect, along with the new and improved Nazem Kadri, and may be able to score the kind of return the Leafs should be seeking.
As good as he is or may become, Jake Gardiner is quickly becoming redundant within the organization amid the continued development of Morgan Rielly and the emergence of Cody Franson as a legitimate point producer.
Within a system run by Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, it wouldn’t appear that there is room enough for all three of them in addition to Captain Dion Phaneuf, whose game involves a certain amount of risk and reward as well.
For as little as he played with the big club during the regular season, injuries thrust Gardiner into the spotlight during the first round of the playoffs, where he carried a good portion of the load for Toronto.
These factors working together suggest that now is the time to “Free Jake Gardiner” in the hopes of landing a future franchise centre.
The problem with this, as stated previously, is most team’s reluctance to trade such valuable pieces of their core. If a trade were to be discussed with the Colorado Avalanche for example, Nonis should not be willing to accept anything less than Matt Duchene in return for a package including Gardiner. Problem is, they would likely be more interested in trading Paul Stastny and his $6.6 million contract.
This leaves Nonis with one other option. He could trade up in the draft and select his own franchise centre.
Taking a quick glance at the draft positioning, the Calgary Flames and the sixth overall selection stick out. They are at the very beginning of a rebuild in Cow Town, whether they want to admit it or not. That being the case, Jake Gardiner and perhaps a player like Joe Colborne in addition to Toronto’s own first round pick is enough to get Jay Feaster interested in relinquishing the pick to the Leafs.
At that point in the draft, it is a very safe assumption that the likes of Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Sasha Barkov will all be off the board. Late riser Valeri Nichushkin may sneak into that group as well after his recent vow to head West in the Fall.
That leaves one prospect that Nonis and the Leafs should be seriously interested in, Brampton native Sean Monahan. He is the 6’2” 193 pound Captain of the Ottawa 67’s that is renowned for his burgeoning offensive abilities, commitment to a 200 foot game and his leadership qualities. He’ll likely be the sixth player chosen in June, but in an ordinary draft year, he may have been a top three selection.
Monahan would likely be able to challenge for a roster spot with the Blue and White in the fall and would eventually form a legitimate one two punch up the middle for the Leafs with Nazem Kadri. He would also provide some much needed size to a relatively small group of centres in Toronto.
The biggest draw of going this route for the Buds is the fact that they truly aren’t ready to win yet, so drafting a future top line centre may make more sense, as it gives him time to develop his game to the point that he is ready to go when the club is a bona fide threat to contend.
Morgan Rielly may be ready to play sooner than later, perhaps as early as October of 2014, so if the Leafs are ever going to trade Jake Gardiner, now may be the best time to do it.
His play in the playoffs has presumably improved his value around the league, which was already relatively high. The only question is whether, in a draft such as this, a rebuilding team like Calgary would be open to trading their highest of three first round picks.
If the Leafs are prepared to serve up a player of Jake Gardiner’s ilk, it may just become a possibility.