TORONTO — No matter what comes next, Jake Gardiner will look back fondly at what he might be leaving behind.
The polarizing Maple Leafs defenceman — often brilliant one moment, frustrating the next — survived the tough times in Toronto.
He’s glad he got to live some of the good ones, too.
“Been through the ups and downs,” Gardiner said as the Leafs cleaned out their lockers this week following another first-round playoff exit. “When I first came here, the team was not great. (Nazem Kadri), myself and Morgan (Rielly) are the last guys here who have been around for a long time. I’ll be pretty proud of what we’ve done here and the way we brought this organization to a team that we can be proud of.
“This team has a real good future and bright future ahead of them.”
It’s just one that, barring something unforeseen, probably doesn’t include him.
Maple Leafs’ Future Without Gardiner?
Set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, Gardiner looks to be the most likely casualty of Toronto’s impending salary cap squeeze.
The 28-year-old, who was a relative bargain at just north of US$4 million annually over the last four seasons, should be in line for a hefty raise on a long-term deal.
And while the Leafs would like to keep him, they’ve already committed more than $68 million to 16 players in 2019-20 — not including pending restricted free agent forward Mitch Marner, whose new contract has a good chance of hitting eight digits next season, putting him in the same ballpark as Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
Gardiner, meanwhile, is expected to be one of the odd men out.
“It could be,” he responded when asked if Toronto’s loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 was his last in blue and white. “We’ll see what happens.”
Gardiner Is Blue & White From the Start
Acquired from Anaheim along with winger Joffrey Lupul and a conditional draft pick for Francois Beauchemin in 2011 before he had ever played an NHL game, Gardiner suited up 551 times in the regular-season for the Leafs, and dressed for 26 playoff contests.
A skilled blueliner with a smooth skating stride, Gardiner scored 45 goals and added 200 assists in parts of eight seasons in Toronto. He also put up 12 points in four trips to the playoffs.
But for all the numbers, the native of Minnetonka, Minn., never truly endeared himself to large pockets of the fanbase. He’s a high-risk, high-reward player, and sometimes that aversion to consequence led to disaster.
Gardiner had a horrendous Game 7 against the Bruins last season — which Toronto also lost — finishing an ugly minus-5.
That led to a teary-eyed exchange with reporters afterward where Gardiner fell on his sword, although there was plenty of blame to go around that night and in the series.
“I’ve got to be better,” he said 12 months ago. “I didn’t show up.”
Gardiner put that misery behind him as best he could, but fan angst bubbled up in January when he was booed at home.
The 17th pick in the 2008 draft then suffered a back injury at the end of the February that would cost him 18 games, and he thought for a time, possibly the rest of the season.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to come back,” said Gardiner, who is hoping to avoid surgery. “The training staff here did a great job.”
But he wasn’t himself. And it showed.
Gardiner “Definitely Wasn’t 100%”
Gardiner looked uncomfortable on the ice and unsure of himself with the puck.
There was another horrendous moment in Game 7 against the Bruins this spring when his egregious turnover behind Toronto’s net led to Boston’s second goal in what would turn into a 5-1 loss.
“I definitely wasn’t 100 per cent,” Gardiner said. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse.”
As for the criticism directed his way by fans and some media members throughout his career under the microscope, it just came with the territory.
“That’s just the way it is,” Gardiner said. “If you’re winning, you’re the best player on Earth. If you’re losing, you suck.
“Whether it’s fans ripping you or media, it’s part of professional sports. You’ve got to get through it.”
Rielly, who grew up with the University of Wisconsin product on the Leafs’ blue line, said his teammate was never truly appreciated in Toronto.
“That’s pretty accurate,” Rielly said. “He’s very valuable.”
General manager Kyle Dubas, meanwhile, made it clear Gardiner is one of the reasons the Leafs went from laughing stock to consecutive 100-point seasons.
“Jake has been such a huge part of turning this franchise around, and I don’t think one game or a series of games should change that,” said Dubas, who has been with the organization since 2014. “In time the way that people view Jake will be so positive.
“People will be so appreciative of what he’s done with the group.”
The thing is, Gardiner will probably have to watch whatever comes next from afar.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press