The Maple Leafs signed Jake Gardiner to a contract extension this week—five years at $4.05 million against the salary cap. It’s an interesting contract because of the type of player Gardiner is.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 30, 2014
What kind of a player is that? Well, it’s probably fair to describe him as a young, offensively skilled defenceman with a tendency (or, at the very least, a reputation) for defensive errors. Historically, we talk about these players as liabilities; players who can’t be trusted to make the safe play. They stand in contrast with defensive defencemen, who have a reputation for making a play with little risk.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it suggests a division between offence and defence that isn’t actually real. In truth, all players have the same responsibility: to help their team generate goal difference. Whether they do it by exceptional defending or by creating a lot of offence is sort of irrelevant—a player’s value is tied up in the goal difference that he creates.
This idea isn't universally accepted, either within hockey or by hockey fans. If you’re a defenceman who is good defensively (whatever that might entail), a complete lack of any offensive contribution will be excused. If you’re a defenceman who is good offensively (again, however one defines that) but prone to mistakes defensively, there doesn’t seem to be tolerance for your deficiencies. If goal difference is what matters—and it is—this can’t be correct.
Gardiner’s 5v5 point production hasn’t been particularly exceptional—0.81 PTS/60 at 5v5 over the past three seasons, 62nd amongst blueliners who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes of 5v5 time. Where Gardiner shines is in terms of his Corsi% relative to his team. In 2011-12, his rookie season, Gardiner posted a 50.3% Corsi%, which was 1.5 points better than his team.
Gardiner didn’t spend much time with the Leafs in 2012-13, leading his agent to campaign for his recall with a #freeJakeGardiner hashtag on Twitter. Although Gardiner only played 12 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs, he posted a 48.5% Corsi%, an astonishing 12.2 points better than the Leafs performed when he wasn’t on the ice. He followed that up by posting a 46.8% Corsi against the Bruins, a series in which he again posted better possession numbers than his team did when he was on the bench. This past season was perhaps Gardiner’s most impressive from a possession perspective. Gardiner posted a 46.4% Corsi, which isn’t particularly good but it was 5.7 points better than the Leafs did when he wasn't on the ice.
When we talk about Corsi and look at how a team does with and without a player in a given situation, what we’re really trying to do is to separate that player from the circumstances in which he plays. No player controls the team around him, who he plays against or how his coach asks his team to play. So what these numbers tell us about Gardiner is pretty simple: When he was on the ice, the Leafs did better than when he wasn’t in terms of the share of the shots that they got as opposed to the opposition.
There are some caveats to this, in terms of Gardiner starting in the offensive zone more often than the Leafs as a whole and being less likely to play against the opposition’s best. Both of those factors can be overstated though. Part of the reason that Gardiner starts in the offensive zone more than the Leafs as a whole is that when he’s on the ice, the Leafs tend to generate more faceoffs in the offensive than defensive zone. That’s something to which Gardiner contributes.
As to the question of Gardiner playing less against the opposition’s best than the Leafs’ top pairing, while that’s true, it’s probably not as big a factor as is commonly believed. A coach can only do so much to shelter a top-four defenceman. While he can do it at home with last change, when the team goes on the road, he can hide his third pairing by putting them on the ice immediately after a line he wants to avoid but his top two pairings are largely at the mercy of the opposing coach.
Taking all this as a whole, the fact that Gardiner makes a bad team better suggests that he can continue to make the team better as they improve. While we aren’t yet at the point where we can confidently say, for example, that Gardiner would be able to play on a really good possession team without dragging IT down, it’s reasonable to think that he can be a top-four defenceman on an average team now, with room to grow.
A top-four guy with room to improve at a $4.05 million cap hit is a pretty reasonable thing. However he generates that value, he generates it. With the salary cap likely to rise in the immediate future, this is a very good contract for the Maple Leafs.