With the 2019-20 season fast approaching, the Buffalo Sabres still have multiple roster issues to figure out. What should the Sabres do with the multiple right-handed defensemen that they have? What does Buffalo do with the second-line center spot? There are other lingering questions as well.
The first area to look at is the revamped blue line that general manager Jason Botterill wanted to greatly improve after last season’s dreadful showing. With two trades executed during the offseason for Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju, Botterill did just that.
But there is one piece that Botterill should add, and that’s Jake Gardiner.
The 29-year-old left-handed defenseman still has a lot left in the tank to offer a young, growing team like the Sabres. He has spent his entire career with the Toronto Maple Leafs but is still unsigned in free agency. There are rumors floating around that it may be his bad back or that he needs surgery, but that would have come out by now if that was the case.
If Buffalo does some very slight cap movement, they could sign him easily. But, does he fit in? Where would he slot into the lineup?
Jake Gardiner’s Fit with the Sabres
After originally being drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round, 17th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Gardiner was traded to the Leafs during his junior year at the University of Wisconsin. He ended up forgoing his senior season to sign his entry-level deal with Toronto.
Gardiner became a starter during the 2013-14 season, playing in 80 games. His best season was the 2017-18 season when he had 47 assists and five goals.
Gardiner has been the constant scapegoat and whipping boy for the Maple Leafs, getting booed at home when he touches the puck and he’s widely considered the reason why the defense is bad. On almost any other team, he would be a top-four or top-two pairing.
If Buffalo can sign Gardiner, he would slot into the second line pairing. Being able to add a left-handed shot to a group that has mostly right-handed shots would be great for the team.
His ability to move the puck and generate offense would be an improvement for a defense that only had Rasmus Ristolainen and Rasmus Dahlin as the main contributors offensively. Gardiner paired with Colin Miller or Brandon Montour would automatically be an upgrade over what Buffalo had last season.
Last season, the Sabres had a goal differential of minus-.58 per 60 minutes. That ranked them 29th per evolving-hockey.com. Gardiner during 5v5 situations during the 2018-19 season was on the ice for 58 goals for the Leafs and 37 against for a plus-21.
If he had been on the Sabres, he would have been the top-rated defenseman in that category and the fourth ranked defenseman in Corsi for behind Dahlin, Montour, and Ristolainen in that order. His Corsi for percentage of 51.67 would have put him as the second-ranked defenseman behind Dahlin.
If Gardiner is able to replicate that or come close to those numbers for the 2019-20 season, he would be a defensive and offensive powerhouse for the Sabres.
How to Sign Gardiner
This was supposed to be Gardiner’s big payday, with a possible eight-year contract from the Leafs or a seven-year contract from any other team that was willing to pony up the dough to get him. His average salary was supposed to be around $8-$9 million or higher.
The longer free agency drags on and he remains unsigned, that price and term seem to be dropping to around three years with an average salary of about $5 million. Elliotte Friedman reported that Gardiner may need to start asking teams for a one-year deal to reset his market value, for an average value of about $7 or $8 million. Buffalo has an estimated $5.1 million left in cap space. They can make either option work in two ways.
First Option: Trade Rasmus Ristolainen
The first option for the Sabres is to trade Ristolainen and get some of his $5.4 million contract off the books to alleviate cap space. If they could move about $3 million of his contract they would have about $8.1 million in cap space or possibly higher depending on the trade.
If they could move Ristolainen for something along those lines, they could entice Gardiner to Buffalo by giving him a little bit more money than his current market value by giving him a longer-term. This would also work for a one-year contract if he is willing to sign for $8 million or lower.
Second Option: Move Guys Down
If the Sabres aren’t able to orchestrate a trade, then this is where some cap gymnastics may come into play. This would involve moving some contracts to the AHL to make cap space in the NHL for Gardiner.
The contract that makes the most sense to move down is Vladimir Sobotka’s
$3.5 million. This type of cap maneuvering would only have to be for one season if Gardiner signs, as Buffalo have 10 players set to be free agents after the 2019-20 season and their cap space for next season, as of right now, would be around $38 million. If he signed a one-year deal then Buffalo would be able to give him a larger contract since they would have a huge amount of cap space.
Botterill would have to make a strong case for Gardiner to consider the Sabres, including a contract around $5.5 million or higher or do some cap maneuvering to get him the one year.
Gardiner would join a young Sabres team that has added some great pieces during the offseason and is definitely on the rise. He would be an integral part of the defense and play opposite a great defender. He would also be joining talent like Dahlin and Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.
If Botterill is able to give Gardiner a contract for about three years at $5.5 million or higher, it would be a pretty good team-friendly deal and would allow Buffalo to move on from him at the age of 32, right when he should be leaving his prime.
If they give him the one-year contract, he may only stay with the team for one season, but Botterill has shown with the Skinner negotiations that he is able to convince players to stay. Gardiner would just be the next test of that ability.
Adding the left-handed shot in Gardiner would be a step in the right direction for a team that is looking to make the playoffs sooner rather than later.