Heading into the off-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs faced all kinds of questions. But the biggest, arguably, was what was going to happen to Jake Gardiner?
Except it wasn’t just a question. It was more of an existential debate; a crisis of philosophy.
Was he a high-risk, no-reward defenceman who justifiably drove Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle crazy?
Or was he a possession-driving puck magnet whose mistakes were the inevitable by-product of being the only guy on the Leafs besieged defence corps who could carry the puck through a minefield without always getting blown up.
He led the team with a Corsi percentage of 46, but given the Leafs were last in the NHL in Corsi – a measure approximating puck possession – maybe he was just the tallest midget?
What to make of Gardiner wasn’t just how to properly value a 24-year-old who achieved career highs in games played (81), goals (10), points (31) and shots (136). It was a question about the future, and whether or not the Leafs were going to have it go rushing by them again.
And now we know.
Tuesday night the Leafs announced a five-year contract that Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported as being worth $20.25-million. It puts his average salary at $4.05-million, or nearly precisely in line with some other very good defencemen of his age and relative experience – at least as measured in ice time and productivity as they came off their entry-level deals.
He got Cam Fowler money; Victor Hedman money, Kevin Shattenkirk money or Slava Voynov money.
For the optimists in the crowd, it’s a good chunk less than the Ottawa Senators are paying Erik Karlsson (7 years/$45.5-million) and likely a fraction of what the Montreal Canadians are going to have to eventually pay P.K. Subban. Not that Gardiner is in that class, but he’s such an intriguing figure because he shows flashes of being every bit as dynamic.
"For us, we think the upside – I wouldn’t say it’s limitless – but I don’t think we know what it is yet," said Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. "We know he’s a good player now, but he has the ability potentially to be much better than he was last year and he was pretty good for us."
Still, there wasn’t much foreshadowing indicating a long-term deal was coming. The Leafs seemed content to sign the kind of bridge deals they’d reached with Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson of late.
That they went five years for Gardiner suggests a shift. Or it could merely be the case that Dave Bolland leaving for the Florida Panthers opened up more long-term flexibility. Regardless, Gardiner is club property for a while.
"The long-term wasn’t something we thought of originally," said Nonis. "But (we) talked about it the past week and they had interest and once we did it, came together pretty quickly."
And if five years and $4-million seems a little lush for Gardiner, that the deal comes without any movement restrictions should off-set any concerns.
But it’s not so much the structure of the deal, but what it suggests, and what it stands for.
Is it just a coincidence that the change in thinking seemed to dovetail with the Leafs bringing on board Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager -- an executive whose data-driven player assessment with the Soo Greyhounds saw him come to favour players with skill even if they weren’t always physical? Does Dubas now have Shanahan’s ear?
But don’t forget that at the end of the regular season, Randy Carlyle used his season-ending press conference to swipe a big, old-school, bear paw at Gardiner.
Asked if anything had surprised him about his exit interviews, Carlyle could have shrugged and made a joke.
Instead, he took aim.
"There’s some surprising things that come back from players," Carlyle said of the end of season meetings. "Some things you would never imagine."
"One example," Carlyle said. "A defenceman – a young defenceman — that’s playing rover-type hockey early in the season versus a more condensed style of hockey, a more conservative style at the end of the season and coming back and feeling that the leash he was afforded at the beginning of the season wasn’t as long as the one he was afforded at the end of the season. Specifically, that one player believes the leash was short, when we believed it was a lot longer than that. It was kind of a surprise."
He didn’t name the player, but the Leafs really only had two young defencemen – Gardiner and Morgan Rielly – and no one believes the rookie Rielly would be the one Carlyle would single out.
"And then the comparison of who he compared himself to in the league," said Carlyle. "That was kind of shocking."
The exchange lent plenty of credence to off-the-record chatter that Gardiner didn’t like Carlyle and Carlyle didn’t like the freelancing stylings and defensive lapses of Gardiner.
But the real cause for concern came when Carlyle was given a two-year contract extension. If the Leafs were throwing their weight behind the veteran coach with the Stanley Cup ring, did that mean they were going to begin throwing Gardiner overboard?
Overblown, says Nonis.
"I know there’s this feeling that Randy is hard on Jake and maybe he is in certain areas, but he really is one of his biggest supporters. … He’d be one of the guys happy with this five-year deal, I can tell you that."
Maybe a better question is how Gardiner feels about playing for Carlyle, for however long that might be. Nonis doesn’t pretend that Gardiner didn’t chafe at times under Carlyle, but says he benefited from it.
"I think Jake is learning how to be pushed. This isn’t Wisconsin [where Gardiner played college hockey]", said Nonis. "There are some things you have to learn along the way. Jake might tell you a lot of the things he was taught and the way he was pushed rubbed him the wrong way, I don’t know, I’m not going to speak for Jake, but I think Jake’s a much better player now than he was 24 months ago. "
And now the Leafs will have five years to determine how good he can be and if that makes them a better team.