It’s the James van Riemsdyk debate all over again.
One year left on his contract, with some Leaf fans wanting a trade, some wanting a re-signing and some alright with letting him play the year then walk to free agency. With van Riemsdyk, all options were explored, yet it ended in, as the likes of TSN’s Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie like to call it, the “own rental.” Hindsight is 20/20 and of course now most firmly believe not getting something back for van Riemsdyk was a mistake.
Now, there’s a chance for Kyle Dubas to write a different script than Lou Lamoriello, but which of the options is the right call?
Option #1: Re-Sign Him
Whether you love him or hate him, Jake Gardiner is more of an asset than a liability. There’s no arguing he has his moments that make fans question why he’s still around— and as we’ve seen they can come at very, very bad times.
But Gardiner does make the team better. Not all the time, but more games than not. He’s improved drastically in the past couple of years from where he was before, both offensively and defensively. The mistakes, though definitely still present, are now fewer and further between. If Kyle Dubas was able keep him in Toronto past this season he likely would.
That being said, even though the Leafs have the cap room to keep the young core intact, Gardiner will likely be one of the casualties of the Tavares singing. If Gardiner stays, that’s when the idea of not having the room to sign the likes of Nylander actually becomes a reality. Even though Gardiner probably has quite a few very productive seasons left in him, he’s already 28 years old. He’d be 29 starting his next long-term contract. He’s going to command more money than younger defencemen like Travis Dermott and with the team’s core getting younger and younger, Gardiner is likely the odd-man out.
Option #2: The Own Rental
It’s tough to tell this early on whether making a run with Gardiner on the team and letting him walk at season’s end is the right call. It’s not common to find someone who can produce at the levels that Gardiner does. He hasn’t missed a game in the past two seasons and has accumulated 95 points in that time, clearing the 0.5 points per game mark as a defenceman. He’s also a plus-33 in that time.
Say what you want about his defensive play, but even though it’s just a statistic, carrying a plus-33 across two seasons is a fairly impressive feat. Take in that Morgan Rielly, the consensus top defender on the team, is minus-24 in that time, and it helps to give perspective that Gardiner, though inconsistent, isn’t simply a poor defender. You may still pull your hair out from time to time watching him play, but it’s a little less hair than a few seasons ago.
The Leafs are in a position to make a playoff run this year. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are in the last year of their entry-level contracts and though the window sure isn’t closing, this is a great year where if the Leafs want to add a piece or two at the deadline to bulk up, they’d be able to. Toronto will need all the assets they can get their hands on to try to take down Tampa Bay if they aim to escape the Atlantic Division this year and moving out Gardiner doesn’t help their chances. If Toronto was to make a deep playoff run with Gardiner this season, nobody would question the decision to keep him. But is the Cup a real possibility for the Leafs this season? That’s something that needs to be seriously considered before deciding what to do with Gardiner.
Option #3: Trade Him
Hmmm, okay. This is where Kyle Dubas could take a very different route from the JVR saga. Gardiner’s trade stock is high. Not to the moon, but a first-round pick coupled with a mid-round pick or prospect as a return is within range. Use the Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis/Washington) trade as a rough baseline. It’s not everyday an offensive defenceman playing arguably the best hockey of his career becomes available.
What the Leafs need to consider is whether they think they can get out of the Atlantic this season. If the answer is yes, keep him. Go for the deep playoff run and even add pieces at the deadline if the opportunity arises. But if it was to become apparent that this isn’t the Leafs year, get the assets for Gardiner. This isn’t a decision that needs to be made right away either— and it shouldn’t be. After the first 20 or 25 games, if the team looks like a real contender, then it presents the reason to keep him for the run. But if it doesn’t look realistic, the team can still be very competitive without him. Similar to St. Louis a couple years ago with Kevin Shattenkirk, you can take the assets then still challenge teams in the playoffs. The Leafs have players who could come in to replace him.
Travis Dermott is being groomed for a top-four spot and Calle Rosen looked very good in the AHL playoffs. Neither is Gardiner at this stage, but both look like they could play a bigger role on the main roster. If after part of the season a trade looks like it could be a good choice, it’s worth considering whether Dermott could slide up into the top-four and if any prospects like Rosen could make the jump to the main roster.
Nobody needs the answer as to what happens with Gardiner right away. A realistic approach is still to wait and see how the beginning of the year plays out. But at a certain point, a decision should be made internally on what to do with Gardiner and if a Cup is within reach.