What is next for Jake Gardiner?

That is one of the biggest unanswered questions as we head into the second week of July. Gardiner, who turns 29 on Thursday, was one of the biggest names available at the onset of free agency. But due to his own team’s cap commitments (despite a series of moves to grab more space, money is still very tight in Toronto) and his search for a raise from his prior five-year, $20.25-million contract, the blueliner remains unsigned.

It’s not yet clear if Gardiner will have to scale back his contractual asks, or if other teams will circle back to him now that free agency has mostly settled. The fascinating thing is how Gardiner ended up in this position. We see a few players initially squeezed out when free agency opens, but usually these are mid-tier talents – the type of players who will surely command multi-year deals, but may not be the high-end impact talents that most general managers are looking for. It’s also plausible that Gardiner’s back injuries have chilled the market for his services to some degree.

That’s what makes Gardiner so interesting. From a performance perspective, Gardiner has regularly delivered over the course of his career. Gardiner’s naysayers will remember him for the intermittent defensive zone turnovers or positional miscues in front of the net, but those moments tend to be rare in occurrence. At the end of the day, Gardiner’s numbers speak for themselves.

Over the last three seasons, Toronto has been a whopping 58 goals better than their opponents with Gardiner on the ice. Of equal note, with Gardiner off the ice, Toronto has been just 15 goals better than their opponents. All of the underlying numbers suggest Gardiner is a player who does enough things well to drive favourable goal differentials on a routine basis:

Embedded Image

The one thing someone might ask when evaluating these on-ice numbers in the context of Gardiner individually – how does teammate quality impact this? It’s a fair question. Over the same three seasons, Gardiner’s most common teammates include Auston Matthews, Zach Hyman, Mitch Marner and William Nylander up front, and Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick as his partners. He’s clearly been the better of the two defenders on his pair for some time, but he has had very respectable forward talent in front of him, which has certainly helped drive offensive performance to some degree.

But there are plenty of techniques to partial out teammate effects. If we look at a Wins Above Replacement measure, which serves to partial out teammate effects and isolate on true individual contributions in all phases of the game, we don’t see Gardiner’s value diminish. In fact, Gardiner regularly stands out as one of Toronto’s heaviest contributors. Over the past three years has added more than two wins per season for Toronto:

Embedded Image

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Gardiner’s impact comes from his even-strength performance. His skating abilities and ease at transitioning the puck to some of Toronto’s agile forwards consistently made the Maple Leafs a dangerous threat in the offensive zone, far exceeding any reservations one might have about Gardiner’s play away from the puck in the defensive third.

But what does two wins really mean to a team, and how does it compare to other defenders around the league? Let’s take a look at some of Gardiner’s comparables – the defenders who have aggregated a similar number of wins above replacement over the same three-year period:

Embedded Image

This, at a minimum, should give teams much more comfort about what a medium or long-term contract for Gardiner might mean. In the context of what he has done over the last three seasons, Gardiner is tightly clustered around some of the better blueliners in the game. There isn’t a single defender on this list of comparables that doesn’t see substantial top-four minutes on their respective teams.

There has never been a question as to whether or not Gardiner is good. But I do think there is a lot of debate right now about ‘how good’ Gardiner really is, and whether he should be the type of player commanding a long-term contract. With the usual caveats about the aging curve applied, I think we can put to bed the idea that Gardiner is anything but a high-end, impact defender.

In a perfect, salary-cap free world, Gardiner would have already extended with the Maple Leafs. But the more time passes, the more he is looking like a casualty of Toronto’s cap position.

A smart team will pounce on this opportunity and immediately improve their defensive corps.