Devils Should Pursue Unsigned Gardiner

The New Jersey Devils’ blue line improved in a big way after the acquisition of P.K. Subban. He’ll step onto their top pair right away and will be a significant help to their power play, too. But even after his addition, they could still use some help on the left side of their defense.

Nashville Predators P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban is ready for a fresh start with the New Jersey Devils (Photo from THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes)

One of the best unrestricted free agents (UFAs) in the class remains unsigned, and that would be defenseman Jake Gardiner. He finished this season with 30 points in 62 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and is the left-handed shot New Jersey needs. Here’s why Devils’ general manager Ray Shero should check in with the still-unsigned UFA blueliner.

An Impressive NHL Résumé

Gardiner has put together an impressive NHL career. He was the 17th overall pick at the 2008 Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks but was acquired by the Leafs in 2011 in a trade that sent François Beauchemin to the Ducks. He’s played his entire career in Toronto and has amassed 245 points in 551 games over eight seasons.

His last few seasons have been some of his best to date. He has a goals above replacement (GAR) of 35.6 since 2016, which means he’s added just over 35 goals to his team relative to a replacement-level player, ranked ninth among NHL defensemen. Does that mean he’s the ninth best defenseman in the league? No. But it probably isn’t an accident to see him where he is.

A big reason for that is his ability to transition the puck, which is what you need from a top-end blueliner. Blue-chip Devils’ prospect Ty Smith seems destined for that spot, but it’d be a lot to ask of him right now. The same can be said of Will Butcher, even after two successful pro seasons as he still needs to work on a few things. Gardiner can fill those minutes in the meantime.

Jake Gardiner A3Z Tableau
Visual by CJ Turturo (@CJTDevil), data by Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine)

The tableau above displays his micro stats, which shows how he fares in transition. He has a significant impact on shot contributions, specifically passing the puck (shotassists/60). And he can enter and exit the offensive/defensive zones with possession more often than not. He also does a good job standing up at his own blue line and denying possession entries by the opposition.

In addition to some of his metrics, he possesses some intangibles you look for. He has good size, at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, and can log heavy minutes as he averaged over 21 per game with the Leafs in 2018-19. Head coach John Hynes got that and then some with Subban, but adding more couldn’t hurt.

Making the Salary Cap Work

Gardiner had been rumored to be looking for a long-term deal worth around $6 million per year in free agency. As it turns out, teams haven’t been willing to offer him anything more than two years. If some team did, he would’ve signed by now, which would explain why he’s taking his time.

If this is true, an opportunity lurks for Shero. He shouldn’t be looking to meet Gardiner’s demands, but there may be a way for both sides to find common ground. The organization still has over $20 million in cap space. If he wants a minimum of $6 million annually, he can get it, and it’d still allow Shero to make more moves.

The most significant part here is finding the right term. Gardiner has had back problems, and at 29 years old, it’s right to have some concerns (it wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s why teams haven’t offered him a long-term contract). But if he’s willing to accept a three or four-year deal, it’s worth taking a chance on him, especially given the team’s need for a left-handed shot.

Related: Devils Likely Not Done After Simmonds Signing

There’s also a couple of ways to find some financial and roster flexibility if need be. The first would be a trading Sami Vatanen, who’s entering the final season of his contract. There wouldn’t be much of a spot for him with Gardiner on the roster. And it’d be wise to try and get some value for him since it doesn’t seem like he’ll be re-signed after the addition of Subban. He has a cap hit of $4.875 million, so that would free up a good chunk of change.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner
Who will Jake Gardiner sign on the dotted line with? (Photo from THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

The next move would be clearing some salary up front. Miles Wood is arguably the team’s best trade chip at forward, and he has a contract that runs through 2021-22, at a cap hit of $2.75 million, which will appeal to teams. Moving Pavel Zacha, who’s a restricted free agent, is another option. He should fetch something around $2 million annually after he re-signs, so moving either player — along with Vatanen — would help the Devils’ cap situation.

A Perfect Fit for the Devils

There aren’t many defensemen available that make more sense. Shero still needs to add a top-six winger, and that’s most likely coming through a trade as the free agent market has all but dried up at this point. That means he’ll have to give up some assets to do so, something he won’t have to do to sign Gardiner.

Related: Devils Need to Add a Top-Six Winger

Cap space has its value, and once it’s gone, it’s tough to get back. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the case here. There’d still be avenues to free up money while still having flexibility afterward. If he isn’t willing to come down from his demands, then that’s a different story. But if the two sides could agree on a three or four-year deal, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up. And that’s true for either party.

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Advanced stats from Evolving Hockey