Friday the Hurricanes announced the signing of Unrestricted Free Agent Jake Gardiner to a 4 year deal with an average annual value of $4.05 million. This comes just ten days before the beginning of training camp. Why was an arguably top three UFA this year sitting on the market for so long?
The first thing worth noting about Gardiner’s situation is that the Leafs never showed a disinterest in re-signing Jake Gardiner, but they could not resign him until after a Mitch Marner deal was signed especially with Gardiner’s original asking price. With Marner still not re-signed, resigning Gardiner has been impossible for the young Kyle Dubas.
Nevertheless, the biggest factor most likely can be attributed to the 29 year old’s back which lead to him only playing in 62 of the 82 games last season. Initially, he missed two games before the 2019 All-Star break making his return on February 1st against Detroit. Based on his play it was apparent his back was still giving him issues, but he still played through February 25th after which he was sidelined again not playing until April 4th- the second to last game of the regular season. After a subpar performance in the postseason and seeing limited ice time, it was disclosed that he never fully recovered from his initial back injury. Fortunately enough back surgery was not needed, but with much uncertainty over his back it is possible many teams were discouraged from signing the impactful blue-liner. Though for the strong Carolina blue-line, signing Gardiner on a team-friendly deal was a smart move.
After being drafted 17th overall in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks, Jake Gardiner played for the University of Wisconsin until 2011 and was traded to the Leafs February 9th of that year. Since his NHL debut at the beginning of the 2011-12 NHL season he has been a key piece for the Leafs’ weaker blue-line playing in 551 NHL games recording 45 goals and 200 assists.
On the Leafs’ blue-line Gardiner carried a lot of responsibility, and his play was viewed under a microscope by fans. From an outsider view, it does appear there are a lot of mixed feelings on the defenseman from the Toronto fanbase. One thing you will hear the most from fans about Gardiner? His giveaways. Gardiner’s 53 turnovers are nowhere near Morgan Rielly’s 94 turnovers last season, but with Rielly being younger and more elite defenseman than Gardiner, Gardiner easily gets more blame. Also, a few of his turnovers have come at the worst possible times. Notably his giveaway at the beginning of game 7 in the Bruins series that lead the Bruins’ game winning goal. Regardless, despite his errors Gardiner has helped the very talented Leafs put up points on and off the power play. Of his 30 points last season 24 were even strength (3 of which were goals) and 5 came from the powerplay. Of his 245 career points he has 37 goals and 133 assists at even strength along with 7 goals and 66 assists on the powerplay. His career high of points in a season came in the 2017-18 season when he recorded 52 points.
Jake Gardiner may not be an elite defenseman, but he is an effective one. He helped the Toronto Maple Leafs find success, and I believe he will help the Carolina Hurricanes find even more success in the seasons to come. After last season this upcoming year is an especially key for number 51. He is coming to Carolina poised with an opportunity to have a breakout season. Leaving the spotlight of Toronto after 8 years alone should benefit Gardiner. On top of that he is now joining a team with a stronger defensive core Gardiner will not have the same responsibilities that he had before specifically because of the Canes’ more developed and complete blue-line. Here responsibility is more balanced with better pairings, and you do not have to rely on one or two individual defensemen as much as a team like Toronto may need to. I do not think Gardiner will disappoint this fanbase, and I believe he will be a key factor in ushering in many more great memories for Canes fans.
I leave you with this tweet I came across on Friday. I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to seeing even more of this from Gardiner in a Hurricanes sweater.