Free Agent Frenzy has slowed down to almost a standstill, but one of the biggest UFAs is still available. With the cap issues the Toronto Maple Leafs are having, Jake Gardiner is still left exposed to the rest of the NHL. There have been questions regarding the status of his back injury that he endured late last season, and his play in the defensive end in general, but Gardiner will return to 100 percent and will be a key component with whichever team he signs with.
A club that should take a legitimate look at him is the Montreal Canadiens. Despite signing Ben Chiarot and offer-sheeting Sebastian Aho, Marc Bergevin and his staff have had a pretty quiet summer. While Bergevin has never felt the urge to appease the media and fans, making a move to sign Gardiner would not only make the fans happy, but it would make Bergevin happy with the impact Gardiner will have with the lineup.
Here is what Gardiner brings to the table.
The most praise that Gardiner receives is through his play with the puck. Dating back to his days at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, Gardiner has been able to be relied upon to produce on the scoresheet. That was why the Anaheim Ducks drafted him with the 17th overall pick in 2008. After his rights were traded to the Maple Leafs in 2011, he became the talk of the town as the Leafs’ next great defenceman.
Gardiner showed early on that he could help put the puck in the net in his rookie season with Leafs, scoring 30 points in 2011-12. He only continued to progress after the lockout-shortened 2013 season, leading to a 43-point season in 2016-17, and 52 points the following season, which was tied with teammate Morgan Rielly for 15th in NHL defencemen scoring.
Last season, the back injury slowed Gardiner down in the second half of the season, leading to just 30 points in 62 games, but that is only a shell of what the defenseman is capable of.
His shot is not the hardest, however it is effective. His shots-through percentage has wavered in the 30 to 40 percent range over the past few seasons, which is impressive giving that he is consistently in the top-half of shots attempted on the Leafs’ roster. He is solid at finding holes through traffic to create scoring chances. For example, this tying goal against the Detroit Red Wings right before Christmas last year.
With the situation that he was in, Gardiner calmly takes the time to wait for traffic to form in front of Jonathan Bernier. Where some defencemen would rush a shot from the point, Gardiner’s patience allows him to help create a scoring chance. His awareness in the offensive zone is well above average at his position.
Making the Difficult Look Easy
Gardiner has developed the ability to make challenging plays look routine. Take this play against the Anaheim Ducks from 2018.
Where some defenceman would simply and drop the puck back to their defence partner when faced with pressure, Gardiner sees an opportunity to make a breakout pass. He threads the needle to find William Nylander, who goes in on a breakaway and scores.
The 100-foot pass looks so simple when Gardiner breaks the puck out of his own end. Tape-to-tape, in stride. Some of the top D-men in the league struggle to make such a play.
Gardiner is one of the smoothest-skating defencemen in the league. He is a very shifty skater, which gives him the capability of bringing the puck out of his own zone, all the way to the opposition’s end. He has end-to-end speed that helps create scoring chances on the rush.
His quick feet help him create time with the puck. Gardiner can notice the pressure coming from behind, and has the agility to make a quick turn, leaving attacking forwards stumbling. With players such as Shea Weber and Jeff Petry manning the right side of the blue line, the Canadiens could really use someone such as Gardiner to bring some speed to the back end.
New Home, Fresh Start
Ask any member of Leafs’ Nation who the most scrutinized player was the last three seasons, they would most likely point at Gardiner. Under the spotlight and pressure that is the mecca called Toronto, he began to fall out of favour with fans and media alike. His mistakes were greatly exploited, and resulted in the fans at Scotiabank Arena infamously booing Gardiner back in January.
With all the negativity surrounding Gardiner in the GTA, a new home could prove worthwhile for him. Granted, he would be going to another market where hockey is considered a religion, but he would be given a clean slate joining the Canadiens’ roster. There is not a doubt he will be given a chance on the power play, as Claude Julien will know how to play to his strengths, since he has coached against Gardiner four times a season for the entirety of his career.
Some players have been able to revitalize their game when they move to a new home – Eric Staal with the Minnesota Wild, Robin Lehner with the New York Islanders, and Phil Kessel with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to name a few. Gardiner would have that chance making the move to Montreal.
Gardiner will step into the Canadiens’ lineup and make an immediate impact. With already being used to playing in the top-four, playing big minutes will be old-hat. Up front, Montreal has promise. In goal with Carey Price, they are set. The biggest area the Canadiens need to improve upon if they want to be a playoff contender is depth on defence. Adding Gardiner to the D-core would greatly bolster their chances.