The St. Louis Blues are a complete team in many ways. They have a deep forward group already, with prospects like Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin potentially there to supplement the team. Their goaltending has gone from a major concern to a source of strength thanks to the arrival of Jordan Binnington. And for many years, the team’s defensive core has been its biggest strength.
With that said, the defense has grown a little stale in recent seasons. They have had essentially the same group there for many years, and it’s safe to question if it’s time for a shakeup. One option for that shakeup would be pursuing pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) left-handed defenseman Jake Gardiner, who has played his whole career for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Could Gardiner provide the offensive boost the Blues need?
Who Is Jake Gardiner?
Gardiner has been an essential part of the Maple Leafs’ blue line since he arrived in the 2011-12 season. A former first-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, he arrived in Toronto when the Ducks acquired François Beauchemin in 2011. Since debuting with the Maple Leafs, he has played in 551 games and has collected 245 points, with 73 of those coming on the power play.
Gardiner is known as a quality possession player who blends offensive skill with defensive reliability (for the most part, as we’ll discuss in a moment). In his career, he has never had a Corsi-For percentage (CF%), a statistic which measures possession, lower than 50%, and it has been 53% or above for each of the last five seasons. That’s a very good number and indicates that he is a strong possessor of the puck (for comparison on the Blues, Joel Edmundson has not posted a mark above 53% in his career yet.)
The one consistent knock on the defenseman is his tendency to disappear in the playoffs. It happened most recently in Game 7 of the Maple Leafs’ series against the Boston Bruins, and resulted in widespread criticism of Gardiner once again in Toronto. It’s possible that this truly is an inescapable shortcoming in his game, but it is equally likely that it is a mental byproduct of the pressure that comes from playing in Toronto. Whatever team signs him will have to take the chance that the latter is the case.
What About Edmundson?
Blues fans may be thinking, “Gardiner seems like a decent player, but isn’t the team already set on the left side?” While it’s true that the St. Louis has already re-signed Jay Bouwmeester and controls Edmundson and Vince Dunn’s futures, there is an argument to be made that they should consider trading Edmundson’s restricted free agent rights and plugging in someone else.
Edmundson is something of an enigma for the Blues. A big, physical defenseman, he has been an important part of the team’s defensive core, and was one of their only consistent players when the team struggled early in the season. But his game is limited, he isn’t a particularly good skater, and he offers absolutely no offensive upside. And, not unlike Gardiner, he hasn’t looked particularly good in the postseason.
Given Edmundson’s contributions to the team, he will likely expect to be paid like a top-four if not a top pairing defenseman. According to EvolvingWild, a Twitter account focused on advanced hockey stats and contract projections, his contract projects to be valued at roughly $4.8 million over six years. While that’s not an unfair deal, one wonders if the team should commit to paying a one-dimensional defenseman that much for that long.
The differences between Gardiner and Edmundson are significant. The Maple Leafs’ defender has a much more well-rounded game and is a drastically better skater. He fits much better in the Blues’ top-four than does Edmundson, though the latter is virtually guaranteed that role if he signs a contract like the one discussed.
Dunn, Perunovich, and Others
The other complication with potentially signing Gardiner is the impact it might have on Dunn’s playing time, but that actually may not be an issue. Dunn already loses playing time to Edmundson and Bowumeester, but if the former were traded and Gardiner were signed, a clearer role would emerge for Dunn. He would be the unquestioned No. 2 going forward, as Bouwmeester re-signed just for one season and is approaching the end of his career.
Beyond Bouwmeester, the Blues have a number of solid prospects on the left side, but the best of these is Scott Perunovich, a top player in college this season. He projects to be a similar player to Dunn and Gardiner, so it may not be wise to keep all three. But that is a decision to be made at a later date, when Perunovich is actually ready for the NHL.
Will Armstrong Pull the Trigger?
Naturally, these decisions aren’t made by fans or writers, but by general managers. Would the Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong be willing to take a chance on a big contract like the one Gardiner will command?
While Armstrong has shown a willingness to pursue big free agents in the past, it seems unlikely that he’d make the decision both to sign Gardiner and trade Edmundson (which seem like logically consequential moves). Gardiner would be a great fit for the Blues, but he might simply come at too high a price tag for them to take the plunge.