This summer the headlines have been focused almost exclusively on the unique RFA stand-off that’s kept star players like Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, and many others sitting without contracts as September closes in.
If you wade through the ‘x-player to sign in Europe’ and ‘x-team to offer-sheet x-player’ rumours, you’ll find that lesser-discussed UFA’s are also waiting to be signed to new NHL contracts.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reports that there is interest for former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner.
“I’ve heard Arizona, I’ve heard both Montreal and Winnipeg, I’ve heard Buffalo if they move maybe Ristolainen out,” the NHL insider said while appearing on Sportsnet’s show Tim and Sid.
“I think there is interest in [Gardiner]. I think he’s being picky, which is fine.”
Friedman also noted that he thinks Gardiner really wants to stick in Toronto, even though the fit may not work given the team’s cap situation and wealth of offensively-talented blueliners such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie.
But of the other teams mentioned, which ones pose the best fit?
The Coyotes adding Gardiner would imply the club clears up some cap space, as the team has just under 200K in available funds, according to CapFriendly.
The squad also has an established offensive rearguard in Oliver Ekman-Larsson running the top power play unit, but the ex-Leaf could quarterback the second unit while also slotting onto the No. 2 defensive pairing.
Fit grade: B-
Of all the teams, the Canadiens seem to be the ones who would make the most sense to acquire Gardiner.
The organization would likely have the cap space on hand to get the deal done, with a little more than $4M to spend in projected resources, according to CapFriendly.
The Habs could also be very flexible in how they utilize the mobile defenceman at even strength. He could play alongside Shea Weber if Victor Mete doesn’t perform well, but would likely start out on the third duo with Ben Chiarot.
Power play time will be harder to come by, as Weber seems to be a lock on PP1 while Jeff Petry should man the blueline for Montreal on PP2. The team could elect to go with a two defender look on the second unit if they were to add Gardiner.
Fit grade: B+
Sure, Winnipeg currently has more than $16M in projected cap space, according to CapFriendly, but it would be a puzzling move if the club brought in Gardiner even with their defensive woes.
As it stands, the Jets have still not signed Patrik Laine or Kyle Connor, which is a bit of an issue. Bringing on the offensive-minded blueliner would only complicate the equation of trying to fit everyone under the cap limit.
After losing Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Chiarot this off-season, there’s no question Winnipeg could use a little help on defence. Realistically, Gardiner could get a shot to play on the club’s second defence pairing and run the second PP unit.
But that seems more like a fantasy given the financial restraints the organization is currently enduring with their roster construction.
Fit grade: C
As Friedman noted, the Sabres would likely have to move on from Rasmus Ristolainen in order to bring Gardiner to Western New York.
On a Ristolainen-free Sabres squad, Gardiner would likely factor into the team’s second defence pairing, since a top line of Rasmus Dahlin and Gardiner would be a little unsettling defensively. He would also likely slot onto the second power play grouping.
The chances of this working, however, aren’t very high. Despite Ristolainen’s comments, the team has claimed he remains in their plans. The club is making it sound as though they would have to free up the money from somewhere else.
Fit grade: C
Gardiner recorded three goals and 30 points in 62 games for the Leafs last season.
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