The Carolina Hurricanes were the butt end of many jokes during the offseason over their obsession with stockpiling defensemen, and for a while, it looked like defense would be the area of least concern. But one of the newcomers on the blue line has yet to find his game two months into the season, and his struggles are becoming harder to ignore.
Jake Gardiner is the current favorite to win the Hurricanes’ Green Jacket award for the worst plus-minus rating on the team, sitting pretty with a minus-17 on the season. The teammate with the second-worst plus-minus is Nino Niederreiter with a minus-6, while the team as a whole sports a goal differential of plus-12.
Though plus-minus as a metric for judging players is being phased out in favor of more complex statistics, it would be ignorant to dismiss the huge disparity between Gardiner and the rest of the Hurricanes. There’s more to the picture than just his plus-minus rating that’s left Hurricanes fans disappointed.
Looking at the Numbers
Gardiner played eight seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that drafted him in 2008. Over the past three years, he’s averaged 45 points per season. But, in 27 games with the Hurricanes this season, he has collected just one goal and five assists – an 18-point pace over the course of 82 games, which would be the lowest total of his career. He’s also on track for the worst plus-minus and his most undisciplined season yet.
His numbers on the score sheet leave much to be desired, but a deeper look into the advanced metrics of the Hurricanes may give us an answer to what’s been plaguing the American defenseman.
|Carolina Hurricanes||Jake Gardiner|
|Expected goals-for percentage||54.58||54.87|
|Scoring chances-for percentage||56.6||56.57|
Collectively, the Hurricanes excel in puck possession – they lead the NHL in Corsi-for percentage (CF%) and scoring chances-for percentage (SCF%), and sit third in expected goals-for percentage (xGF%). The Hurricanes have been a consistently dominant puck-possession team the past few years, and the addition of Gardiner hasn’t drastically swayed their numbers one way or the other. In fact, his numbers shine just as brightly.
Where there is a big discrepancy however, is in PDO (sum of the team’s shooting percentage [S%] + save percentage [SV%]). PDO is sometimes referred to a formula for luck, as both S% and SV% can vary greatly game-to-game.
Gardiner has never had a high shooting percentage – he’s converting 5.6 percent of his shots into goals throughout his career – but a PDO of .921 is downright miserable. It’s the lowest on the team, and among the worst of all NHL defensemen. It suggests when he is on the ice, the Hurricanes are controlling the puck more than their opponent, but are still giving up a huge imbalance of goals-against.
It doesn’t seem to matter who he plays with – he’s split the season between Brett Pesce, Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk, and his numbers don’t change too much depending on who his defense partner is.
A simple eye test can help make sense of the discrepancies – he’s notably struggled the past few weeks with horrendous giveaways and missed assignments in the defensive zone. Unfortunately for Gardiner, his play style means his mistakes are much more noticeable than his contributions, and right now, his lack of offense and habits for defensive gaffes are one of the reasons for his horrid PDO.
He’s also gotten into penalty trouble lately at inopportune times. In Saturday’s 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the penalty he took 2:39 into the third period of a 3-0 lead was what kick-started the Lightning’s comeback that almost resulted in them tying the game.
The night before, in Friday’s 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators, Gardiner took two late penalties on plays where he got beat cleanly, setting the team back on their heels and making the odds of a comeback almost insurmountable.
The Game Beyond the Numbers
One of the more difficult transitions when joining a new team is adapting to the new coach’s system of play. He survived through a carousel of coaches with the Maple Leafs who all had their own vision. Under Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina, Gardiner faces another challenge to adapt to the Hurricanes’ energetic tempo.
When the Hurricanes signed him out of free agency, Gardiner quickly endeared himself to ‘Canes fans by potting the overtime goal in the second game of the season against the Washington Capitals. But he faded into the background in November, and is pointless in his last nine games.
Gardiner wasn’t signed to be a junkyard dog in charge of patrolling the front of the net. Standing at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, he is actually one of the smaller guys on the Hurricanes’ towering wall of defense, and he doesn’t play a heavy or physical game.
General manager Don Waddell and the Hurricanes acquired Gardiner because of his skating and vision, but since pulling on the Hurricane crest, he hasn’t looked comfortable executing what he did so fluidly with the Maple Leafs. He hasn’t been successful firing off his patented north-south breakaway passes, and even his skating has looked shaky at times.
He’s not being thrown to the wolves either – his offensive zone start percentage is 64.29, tops on his team and one of the highest in the league for defensemen. He’s being specifically put in a position to succeed and just hasn’t been able to ignite the offense.
Gardiner has a history of back problems, which caused him to miss 20 games last season, and while he has dressed for every contest this season, the back issues are always a lingering concern. He’s a 29-year-old defenseman with three years left on his contract after this season, all carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $4.05 million per year, which makes him the third-highest-earning defenseman on the Hurricanes.
His contract leaves less cap room to re-sign the rest of Carolina’s blue line, including Joel Edmundson, who was acquired in the Justin Faulk trade and has performed significantly better than Gardiner this season. Even without a lick of power play time, Edmundson, a pending unrestricted free agent, trumps him in goals, points, and ice time.
Gardiner averaged over 20 minutes of time-on-ice in each of his eight seasons with the Maple Leafs. But in the deep defensive structure of the Hurricanes, he’s averaging only 16:36, which is fifth among Hurricanes defensemen. Until he finds his game, he’s better off scooping up third-pairing minutes next to van Riemsdyk or Fleury, with deployment on the second power play unit.
Hurricanes Will Get What They Paid For
Defensemen who can nail the stretch pass and sift shots through traffic as well as Gardiner are hard to find. It’s not a flashy style of play, so the good things he does often go unnoticed. He’s not going to be that power player who can break a game wide open with one shift, but what he can do, and what the Hurricanes haven’t quite seen yet, is be a player who can spot the open man and quickly set offensive rushes into motion.
Naturally, the Hurricanes expect more offense out of Gardiner. In tense situations in the past, he has struggled under pressure, most notably in the past two Game 7s against the Boston Bruins. It’s just one of the times he became the whipping boy for being mistake-prone when the stakes were at their highest.
Transitioning to a new city with a new team for the first time in your career is a high-pressure situation, and he may need more time to settle in and get comfortable – even if it’s moving from a hockey zoo like Toronto to a smaller market in Carolina.
Like Tyson Barrie in Toronto, or P.K. Subban with the New Jersey Devils, sometimes offensive defensemen take longer to mesh into a new system before they’re comfortable being the free-skating risk-takers they are. With Gardiner, you have to take the bad with the good, and his abnormal PDO, strong possession numbers and gradual adjustment to a new lifestyle suggest it’s coming.
Whether you put weight into analytics or not, Gardiner still has much more to offer this team, despite the glaring mistakes he’s been maligned for throughout his career. But that’s the player he has always been, and the Hurricanes knew that when they signed him. He hasn’t lived up to expectations yet, but ‘Canes fans just need to be patient – it’s not quite time to push the panic button.