Well, this certainly adds new meaning to the #FreeJakeGardiner movement from last season.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Monday night that there is “definitely some level of conversation going on between other teams and Toronto” with regards to young defenceman Jake Gardiner, a tidbit that is sure to send some of the Leafs fan base into hysterics.
You can read Friedman’s take for yourself in points 14 and 15 of this week’s 30 Thoughts column.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that these types of “conversations” often get reported when it comes to the Leafs. In some cases, nothing comes of it (Phil Kessel early last season, Dion Phaneuf in the off-season, Cody Franson during contract negotiations, etc.), and in others, the “talk” turns into something (Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn, Jonathan Bernier, Joe Colborne, etc.).
Then there are other moves that come right out of the blue, like when Phaneuf was acquired one sleepy Sunday morning in 2010 and no one in the media saw it coming.
So this Gardiner business could be something – and Friedman certainly has the sources to back this up – or it could fizzle and he’ll remain a key part of the Leafs blueline.
But here’s why it makes sense, at least from the perspective of Toronto management:
They’ve got a lot of similar elements in their top six, and they’re not particularly heavy on Randy Carlyle elements.
By that I mean the Leafs now have three cheap, young defencemen you would describe as offence-first, defence-second (Franson, Gardiner and Morgan Rielly) and really only two shutdown types (Carl Gunnarsson and Mark Fraser).
The only physical with a capital P options on the blueline, meanwhile, are Phaneuf and Fraser, the latter of whom is probably best suited for a No. 7 role and limited minutes.
It’s obvious that a big part of GM Dave Nonis’s rebuild of the roster over the summer was aimed at getting more physical, too, with finesse types like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur dumped in favour of the two Daves(Clarkson and Bolland) and the Troy Bodies and Jamie Devanes getting spots on the roster.
Where that transformation hasn’t taken place at all is on the back end.
One of the reasons John-Michael Liles fell out of favour in Toronto is the type of defenceman he is: A small, skilled puck mover with a left hand shot, something the Leafs suddenly have in abundance.
That basic description also applies to both Gardiner and Rielly, and with Gardiner – for all his talents – still more unpredictable than Carlyle wants, that could make him another odd-man out.
The problem here is that the Leafs really don’t have any cap space – it’s getting down into five digits territory – so they can’t exactly move Gardiner for a more established centre or defenceman (their two biggest needs) that makes more than his modest base salary ($875,000).
That means swapping a young player for a young player, and in the case of Gardiner – who barely played in the NHL last season due to concussion, consistency and coaching issues – they’d be selling low.
For all the good in their first three games, it’s also pretty clear that the Leafs would benefit from an upgrade on the blueline. As always, Phaneuf remains tasked with too much, and the unit in general looks like one that’s making only $15.7-million.
If moving Gardiner meant they could add a two-way defender that could log tough minutes and ease the burden on Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, it might make some sense. Given that’s not possible, the best course of action is probably to live through some of these growing pains and allow the blueline to be more of a skilled, skating one than Carlyle would typically want.
Gardiner looked remarkably poised and relatively mistake-free under Ron Wilson in his rookie season two years ago but has never had that comfort level under Carlyle, either because he is still readjusting to coming back to the NHL or he is being asked to play out of his personal comfort zone.
He’s not a big guy and not used to playing with much physicality, something this coaching staff is asking for repeatedly.
He is also still only 23 years old, and many, many capable top four NHL defencemen don’t become what they’re going to be until a couple more years into their careers.
But his gifts are obvious – and it’d be a mistake to give up on those too soon.