Jake Gardiner could be free agent steal

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One of the most surprising developments this offseason has to be the fact Jake Gardiner, probably the top defender to hit the open market, remains unsigned nearly two weeks into the free agent signing period.

Not only is he still unsigned as of publication on Saturday, but there has also been complete radio silence on any potential interest in signing the defender.

Little to no speculation on potential teams, or contract terms, or … anything. It’s almost as if he no longer exists in the NHL, which is completely stunning given how good he has been and some of the other contracts that have been signed this summer.

How does a team give Tyler Myers $30 million over six years on the first day of free agency, or give up multiple draft picks in a trade for Justin Braun, while a better player (Gardiner) remains sitting out there unsigned for anyone to go after?

The concerns

Let’s start with health.

Gardiner was limited throughout the 2018-19 season by a back injury that sidelined him for 20 games and clearly limited him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It creates quite a dilemma for any interested team because until this season Gardiner had been an extremely durable player, appearing in at least 75 games in six of his first seven seasons while playing more than 20 minutes per night every year. That includes five seasons where he played in at least 79 games, and back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 where he did not miss a single game.

Even though his injury has reportedly healed well this offseason, it is still understandable that a back injury for a 29-year-old defender could be a legitimate concern for a team on a long-term contract.

The other criticism that Gardiner faces is that he has had two of his worst games on the biggest possible stage, struggling in back-to-back Game 7 losses over the past two seasons.

But any team that puts more weight on those two games than his entire career track record is making a bad evaluation.

The playoffs are a strange beast because they are ultimately what teams (and players) are measured by when it comes to their success and/or failure. But that can also lead to a lot of mistakes because you are not always getting an accurate representation of what a team (or player) actually is. Especially when you drill it down to a single game, or even just a few single moments within a single game.

It is almost as if players that play on teams that don’t get into big games get evaluated more favorably than players that do, because the former hasn’t had a chance to have their flaws exposed or had a chance to have a bad performance in a big situation. Almost as if it’s better to NOT play in a big series or a big game, eliminating the risk of making a mistake that could be a negative on your track record, than it is to play in one and make that one mistake. I don’t necessarily think that teams are entirely shying away from Gardiner because he fumbled a few plays in Game 7s … but I also wouldn’t put it past teams to do that, either.

The production

The point with this is that the larger sampling should take greater priority over the one mistake in the one game you paid closest attention to.

When it comes to the larger sampling, Gardiner should be an attractive option because he has been a very good player.

He moves the puck well, he has consistently scored well in terms of possession and scoring chances throughout his career on teams that have not always been good in those areas, and he can provide some offense.

For his career he’s played 551 games, recorded 245 points, and has a career 51 percent Corsi percentage.

Among active defenders, he is one of only 12 defenders that hit all of those marks through their age 28 season, a list that also includes the likes of Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk, and Dougie Hamilton. All of them were (and are) on significant long-term contracts by age 29. Most players that make it this far into free agency do not typically get long-term deals, so it’s possible that Gardiner has to settle for something less than expected at the start of the free agent signing period.

The Maple Leafs theory

Let’s just throw one more possible theory out there, just for laughs.

The theory: the Maple Leafs want to bring him back, he wants to return, but neither side can move on that until the team gets the Mitch Marner restricted free agent situation, and by extension, the rest of their salary cap situation, completely settled.

Is it likely? Probably not. But it’s hard to figure out why an otherwise good, productive player at an important position where there are not a lot of good, productive players available is still unsigned this far in the summer.

As long as he is healthy there is no reason to think he will not be the same productive, top-four defensemen he has been throughout his entire career for whatever team that signs him this summer.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.