The Carolina Hurricanes continue to do good business — this time only adjacently at the expense of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After acquiring a future first-round pick from Toronto in order to take on Patrick Marleau’s contract, the Hurricanes have selected another former Maple Leafs skater for service, signing free-agent defenseman Jake Gardiner to a four-year contract worth a little more than $16 million.
If Gardiner remains healthy, this presents even more incredible value on a contract for the Hurricanes already-insanely deep blue line.
And if you’ve been in the Gardiner camp as a Maple Leafs supporter, it makes an exit that had been long accepted, suddenly somewhat sting.
Most had moved on because it wasn’t hard to reconcile with the fact the Leafs could not afford to keep a defenseman that would slot in behind both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin on the left side when the opportunity was there for Gardiner to strike it rich.
So why, then, did he end up settling for the same money he was earning across the last five seasons in Toronto?
Here are some possible explanations:
The Leafs didn’t really want him
Unlike James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, who kept the veteran exodus moving last summer, Maple Leafs management seemed to keep the door open on a potential Gardiner return, if only slightly.
And that genuine interest seemed to exist on both sides (certainly on the part of Gardiner) until the trades for Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie appeared to eliminate the possibility of his return. But as summer wore on, and Gardiner hadn’t yet jumped at the lucrative long-term contract extensions that were supposed to be on the table, whispers grew louder about the veteran puck mover maybe prioritizing his preferred destination over the most lucrative landing spot.
Now one week before training camp, it’s not only obvious that the market dried up, but that the Leafs weren’t eager to take advantage of it. While granted it was not as simple as this, in a way the team has made it known that it is comfortable with the fact that it will pay Ceci nearly a half-million dollars more than Gardiner will earn next season.
Timing and handedness are just several factors that, again, make it not quite as simple as choosing what appears to be a flawed defenseman in Ceci over another that’s been mostly effective and often vilified in the market. However, if the Leafs really wanted to make this reunion happen, it appears it wasn’t an impossibility.
This was the best that was out there
One explanation for the Leafs’ reluctance to move heaven and earth (or Ceci) to bring Gardiner back in the fold may be that the dream scenario that seemed to have to unfold was simply non-existent.
Gardiner missed 18 games at the end of last season and, as Mike Babcock said, was “not mobile” in his third-pairing role in the playoffs after adding to his history of back troubles with a major flare-up last season.
While he avoided surgery (which could be looked at one of two ways), Gardiner’s back issues must serve as the primary reason why he was unable to improve on his salary after five years of financial inflation — and maybe part of the reason the Leafs weren’t involved in the end.
While there might have been money left on the table on the part of Gardiner, all things weren’t equal. What Carolina committed might have been the most total money available when he was ready to make a decision — or at least the best combination between profit and the chance to win. And understanding his injury history, guaranteed dollars are no small thing.
Gardiner’s injury history is really the only explanation for him having to settle for nearly $2 million less than Tyler Myers.
Both the Maple Leafs and Gardiner misplayed their hands
The Leafs are obviously not bound to the $4.5 million salary they carved out for Cody Ceci — and could have potentially found a team to house the deal — but there is a scenario in which their projection for the Gardiner contract led them down the wrong path.
There’s reason to believe the Maple Leafs may have allocated their money a little differently had they known what the exact price would be on Gardiner (or if they had a contract signed with Mitch Marner), even if it presented continued challenges with respect to handedness.
The influence Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has had on the roster has never been more apparent — but that seems to be with the exception of Ceci, who will never suit that brand the same way Gardiner did.
As for Gardiner himself, his priorities are not mine to decide. But his apparent preference to avoid going through the process again (and his wife’s fear of moving to Russia) suggests he surrendered some earning power during his chance to sign the most lucrative contract of his career.
Jake Gardiner says his health is back to 100%. Took less money annually in exchange for term because he didn't feel like going through the UFA process again.— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) September 6, 2019
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