This past week, defenseman Jake Gardiner signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. His contract was for four years and totaled $16.2 million. It’s exactly the same salary-cap hit he had with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The differences are that he doesn’t have signing bonuses (his salary is spaced over the year), and his salary escalates from $3.65 million (year one), $3.9 million (year two), $4.2 million (year three), and $4.45 million (year four). That’s less than many expected Gardiner would receive, but still good money.
More than Numbers Were Involved
Those are the facts. But, here’s what I believe. As a commentator, I believe the Maple Leafs were a far better team with Gardiner in their line-up than with him gone. That said, as a fan and a person, I’m glad he left the Maple Leafs and the city of Toronto. I’m glad he’ll have a fresh start with the Hurricanes.
It’s hard to cover a team such as the Maple Leafs for the time I have without becoming both a fan and a commentator. As a fan, on last season’s team (although I know I’m in the minority on these choices), I had three favorite players.
First, I loved Tyler Ennis. I loved his story, having been bought out by the Minnesota Wild and then signing to play with the Maple Leafs at the NHL’s minimum salary. I loved that, while he was here, he did everything asked of him. He covered for whoever was injured or out (William Nylander), from the top-six to the fourth line.
Second, I loved the old guy Ron Hainsey. Perhaps, because I’m now in my 70s, I simply like old and slow guys. However, I also agreed with coach Mike Babcock, who noted that Hainsey was smart and always moved to the right place on the ice.
Third, I loved Gardiner. I loved his style. I liked that he was a high-risk, high-reward defenseman. I didn’t mind his defensive liabilities – the same liabilities many offensive defensemen had (I remember Paul Coffey in his prime) because he also had a tremendous skill set that contributed to a fast-paced game. He was great on the power play and helped make the Maple Leafs offense click.
I also appreciated how much Gardiner cared. He was a professional hockey player, but he was also very human. He had two notably bad games (one a single mistake), but he was always a stand-up guy. He carried the blame. He never threw anyone else under the bus.
Two Bad Games Were the Tipping Point
Two games probably ended Gardiner’s tenure as a Maple Leafs player. First, during the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Maple Leafs lost Game 7 to the Boston Bruins. Gardiner’s poor play during the third period was one crucial reason for that loss. The Maple Leafs led by a goal in that fateful third period, but the Bruins scored four straight goals to beat Toronto 7-4. Gardiner was on the ice for all three of the Bruins’ last goals. Other than Ron Hainsey (24:19), Gardiner played more minutes than any other Maple Leaf (24:01) – he was a minus-five.
The loss was tough, and Gardiner publicly blamed himself for the team’s elimination, admitting that he “let a lot of people down.”
Then on Jan. 14, 2019, in a loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Gardner made a mistake that cost his team a goal. Hometown Maple Leafs fans rained boos on him for the entire third period. It didn’t end; fans barely stopped booing him the entire season. The booing became so bad that The Hockey Writers’ Will Billinghurst wrote a post, rhetorically asking if fans had a right to boo.
A Difficult Season for Gardiner
Last season wasn’t easy. Probably, as a result of those two notable games, the fans made Gardiner a public whipping boy. Their booing was unforgiving. Only later did we find out that Gardiner had probably played with a back injury for much of the season, and he finally missed 20 games as a result of back injuries and spasms. He was likely playing hurt in that game against the Avalanche.
After that game, teammate and fellow blueliner Morgan Rielly stuck up for Gardiner: “He comes to work every day like a pro, he works hard, his teammates love him, he’s the most popular guy in this room. Guys make mistakes out there all night. That’s the way the game is. It’s played on ice, so things happen that can be unpredictable. It just happened that it ends up in the back of the net. If not, it’s probably a nothing play.”
There’s no doubt that Gardiner erred. He was out-muscled by the Avalanche’s Carl Soderberg, who stripped him of the puck and scored shorthanded. Still, Gardiner didn’t deserve the booing: it was a mistake that, as teammate Rielly noted, speaks to the nature of hockey.
Hockey is a game of mistakes, and these mistakes create the on-ice action. When one team doesn’t make a mistake the other team can capitalize on, the game is dull. It works both ways, and both teams make mistake after mistake. Without these mistakes, hockey simply isn’t the vibrant game we’ve come to love.
Now Gardiner Is Gone
About the fans’ booing, Babcock said: “The good thing about our fans is they’re passionate, they want us to win, they want us to play way harder … They paid their money; they’re allowed to say what they want.”
Of course, Babcock is correct. That’s professional hockey. And, in professional hockey, Gardiner can sign with another team – which, he did.
I don’t know why Gardiner signed in Carolina. It might have been simply the best contract his agent could muster because of his back injuries. The commentators I read believe it’s about the numbers.
I’m not so sure. But, I’m quite sure Gardiner will never forget the booing he received from Maple Leafs fans. In my experience, no professional hockey player can ever be “professional” enough to not care about his treatment from his home fans. I’m believing those memories will be pop up for Gardiner well past the days his hockey-playing is over.
Gardiner has left the Maple Leafs. I am neither surprised nor unhappy. Since his departure, I’ve heard a number of fans and commentators calling out the Maple Leafs’ organization for not signing him. [See my THW colleague’s Chris Faria’s thoughtful post titled “Gardiner’s Contract a Misstep for Maple Leafs.”] But, although I agree with Faria’s post, in my mind it wasn’t the organization that deserted the young defenseman: it was the fans.
Welcoming Gardiner Back as a Hurricanes Player
When Gardiner comes to town with his Hurricanes teammates on Dec. 23, 2019, for a game against his former team, I hope fans give him a heartfelt round of applause. I’m pretty sure he’ll graciously and professionally thank the fans, but I also believe part of him will be relieved to be out of Toronto.
As a commentator who covered the Maple Leafs, Gardiner became one of my favorite players. But, I’m glad he’s gone. There’s a time in a young man’s life when it’s time to move on, and I believe that time for Gardiner was now.