The New Jersey Devils have a lot of offseason needs. And one of those is finding a top-four defenseman, specifically one who is left-handed and can play top-pair minutes. If unrestricted free agency (UFA) is the route they choose to go, Jake Gardiner should be at the top of their list. He’s solid in his own end and can create offense, but he won’t come at a discount. Is he worth the money the Devils will have to shell out for his talents?
Gardiner Should Get the Devils’ Attention
His name might not appeal to you like Erik Karlsson, who’s also a UFA this summer, but Gardiner has put together a solid résumé with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In his eight-year career, he’s totaled 245 points in 551 games and has shown an ability to create offense. He also provides a physical presence at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds.
The left side of the Devils’ blue line could use someone like Gardiner. They have an aging Andy Greene, who isn’t capable of playing top-pair minutes anymore. Will Butcher looks like a solid top-four defenseman, but it’d be a stretch to say he can play consistent top-pair minutes right now. That leaves Sami Vatanen or Damon Severson needing someone who can play alongside them.
Gardiner’s underlying numbers suggest he’s someone who can play with either of those two. His goals above replacement, which determines how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, was 12.9 this season. That puts him ahead of defensemen such as Alex Pietrangelo, Mattias Ekholm, and John Klingberg. It also puts him first on the Devils by a decent margin.
Another issue the Devils have on their back end is their inability to move the puck effectively. Butcher does this very well, as does Severson, but the same can’t be said of their other defensemen. Top prospect Ty Smith will be able to help, but they can’t bank on a 19-year-old to solve all their problems.
Gardiner would provide the boost they need and can’t get from within the organization. He exits the defensive zone with possession at a high rate and has a positive impact on shot contributions, which leads to more scoring. He also does an excellent job of breaking up zone entries with possession. If partnered with Severson, the Devils could have a pretty effective top pair.
Severson doesn’t come without his flaws, but he hasn’t played with a defenseman of Gardiner’s caliber before. His most common partners over the last three seasons have been Greene and John Moore, who’s now with the Boston Bruins. Gardiner would be a significant upgrade over both and would be a nice change of pace for Severson.
To Sign or Not to Sign Gardiner?
Gardiner will not come cheap. Some have speculated he could earn north of $7 million per year, while TSN’s Darren Dreger says he’ll be looking for a minimum of $6 million per year, and that term will be important. In Evolving Wild’s contract projections, he’s forecasted to land a seven-year deal worth about $6.950 million per year. So what should the Devils do?
The Case Against Signing Him
The Devils haven’t paid for a high-priced free agent under general manager Ray Shero as he doesn’t believe it’s the right way to build a team. They pursued Kevin Shattenkirk in the summer of 2017 before he decided to sign with the New York Rangers, the team he grew up supporting.
Brian Boyle did sign with the Devils that same summer, a deal that carried a cap hit of $2.55 million. Ben Lovejoy signed a three-year contract the previous summer, one that came with a cap hit of $2.66 million per year. Those are the two most expensive signings of Shero’s tenure, and he’d prefer to keep it that way.
Gardiner also comes with some injury concerns as he had a back issue that kept him out for 20 games this season. Back injuries are tricky things, and you never know how it’ll hold up down the road. He’s also 29 years old, and if he’s looking for a max contract of seven years, the Devils will have to decide if it’s worth handing out a deal for someone who’ll be 36 years old when it expires.
Gardiner’s asking price might also be a bit high. If he earns a deal that pays him $7 million annually, he’d be one of the 13 highest-paid defensemen in the league. He’s a very good defenseman, but one of the top-13? Probably not. And he’s not going to get much less money than what’s speculated, especially with the weak UFA class, so there’s the risk of overpaying.
The Case for Signing Him
The gist of the argument for signing Gardiner is pretty simple: he’d become the Devils’ best defenseman the moment he signs. He has the skillset they need and would be their most effective puck-mover. He’s a left-handed shot, which fills a need, and he can play top-pair minutes alongside Vatanen or Severson. Teams tend to overrate size, but Severson is the only Devils’ defenseman above six feet tall who plays every night. So Gardiner’s frame would be a welcomed addition.
Gardiner may end up being expensive, but the salary cap won’t be an issue for the Devils. They have a projected $32 million in cap space, and that doesn’t include any additional space they’ll get if the salary cap rises to $83 million, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman projects it will. So if they’re itching to pay a top free agent, this would be the summer to do it.
If the Devils want to return to the postseason, they’ll need to spend big money on a free agent or two at some point. Top talent doesn’t come without paying top dollar, and Gardiner would be one worth paying. Shero also has to show Taylor Hall they’re serious about contending to get him to re-sign, and Gardiner helps make that case. And instead of giving up assets in a trade to acquire a defenseman, he won’t cost anything more than cap space.
One sticking point of Shero’s end-of-season interview was about adding more talent this offseason. Hall echoed those sentiments as well. I have no idea what goes on in the Devils’ front office, but I doubt they’ll be as quiet as they have the previous two offseasons during free agency. Gardiner is a natural fit for the Devils. And if the two sides see eye-to-eye on a potential deal, it may be enough for Shero to break his trend of staying quiet during free agency.
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Advanced stats from Evolving Hockey