The Carolina Hurricanes announced Friday that they have inked former Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner to a four-year deal. The deal will pay him an average annual value (AAV) of $4.05 million.
Gardiner at a Glance
In the team’s press release, president and general manager Don Waddell said, “Jake is a solid veteran blueliner with a proven history of contributing offensively, including on the power play. “He’s had options this summer, but ultimately decided that Carolina is his best fit, and we’re thrilled to have him here.”
From all apparent angles, this is a fantastic move by the Hurricanes.
The team statement also noted that Gardiner, 29, totaled 30 points (3 goals, 27 assists) last season and ranked third among Toronto Maple Leafs defensemen in plus/minus (plus-19) in 62 regular-season games. He has been described as
Welcome to Raleigh, Jake Gardiner
In a conference call with the media on Friday, Gardiner said of the Hurricanes, “I saw a team on the rise, a Cup contender for sure…Just a really good team, seemed like a really good fit. The leadership, too.”
Having been a part of the Maple Leafs and their recent resurgence into a playoff team, he is well-suited to make his assessment of where the Hurricanes are as an organization.
This is not an average player that the ‘Canes picked up off of waivers to fill a spot – Gardiner is an experienced, playoff defenseman. When paired with the already stout Hurricanes blue line, the team – on paper at least – is that much more formidable.
As an aside, a couple of Hurricanes fans texted me about the Gardiner deal right after it went down and they both ironically said the same thing, “Well, that’s a good use of Justin Williams’ money.” The mood at the team’s media day, which was held Thursday, was, “We love Justin and he has a place here, but we’re moving ahead.”
With or without Williams, Gardiner makes this team better.
Jake Gardiner Catches Heat
Last April, the Toronto Sun had a scathing article written by Michael Traikos in which he started out not mincing any words: “Once again Jake Gardiner cost the team the game. Cost them the season.” (From “Jake Gardiner Crumbles Again for the Leafs,” by Michael Traikos The Toronto Sun 4/23/19)
Traikos was just getting warmed up as he went on to write, “If there was any question whether the Leafs would get creative with the salary cap and re-sign Gardiner to another contract in the summer, the 28-year-old defenceman answered them with the type of performance that no team with Stanley Cup aspirations wants to touch.”
Gardiner did not have his typical game during the playoffs and Traikos piled on, “This was another do-or-die game where Gardiner was wearing the goat horns, where he gave away the puck, caused a crucial goal and became hockey’s version of Bill Buckner.”
To be fair, losing to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Quarterfinals of the Eastern Conference Playoffs was not all his fault. But, he has been the target of blame not only in that game but in two other playoff losses by the Leafs.
How’s the Back, Jake Gardiner?
I asked Gardiner directly during the media conference call about his back. He said, “I had an unfortunate injury last year. But it healed on its own and I’m feeling one hundred percent right now and ready to get the season going.”
A healthy Gardiner at $4.05 million per year is a coup that has to have Waddell glowing.
Gardiner Love and Hate
Maple Leafs media can be savage. They are of course frothing for the Cup to come back to Canada and more specifically to Toronto. For all of his skill and excellent play, he has gotten more of their vitriol than was justified. In January one of my colleagues with The Hockey Writers wrote, “the Maple Leaf fans have been unrelenting and unforgiving in their booing. Good hockey players – stars even – make mistakes.”
Not all of Toronto has been critical of Gardiner. James Tanner wrote for Fansided earlier this year, “Jake Gardiner isn’t just one of the Toronto Maple Leafs best players, and he isn’t just one of the best defensemen in the NHL – He is one of the best Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.”
High praise coming from one of the Maple Leafs’ writers who is candid and often scathing in his assessments.
At SBNation, Tyler Mair wrote in June, “An eight-year veteran, Gardiner has been a strong offensive defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs since day one. He has scored at a pace of 40-plus points in each of his last three seasons, and at 28 years old he shouldn’t be slowing anytime soon. The man oozes offense when he’s on the ice…Make no mistake, though — Gardiner is no defensive slouch.”
The praise for him is not just painting him as an average guy but as one of the best defensemen around. The Hurricanes may just have pulled off the acquisition of the year.
The bottom line is that the Hurricanes got a premier defenseman for a bargain, likely because other teams were leery of the back issue. Gardiner told me he is ready to go and one has to think that Waddell and team owner Tom Dundon would not sign him to a four-year deal without serious due diligence.
Hurricanes fans should feel very good as training camp approaches. They have added key players who are putting the Williams summer-long play-or-retire scenario behind them. This is a preseason that is the first in a while where Hurricanes fans can be legitimately excited. Adding Gardiner is a big reason for that excitement.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.