Four days after the announcement that Justin Williams would not be returning at least for the start of the 2019-20 season, the Hurricanes spent the $4M-ish available salary cap in signing defenseman Jake Gardiner to a four-year contract with an average salary of $4.05 million per year. My initial Twitter-size comments are way at the bottom for anyone who cares to start with those.
In my article about Justin Williams’ decision, I devoted an entire paragraph to the possibility of targeting Jake Gardiner with the salary cap freed up when I wrote:
Also in a Leafs vein, could Jake Gardiner be a bargain basement add. To be clear, I do not see the Hurricanes adding a higher cost defenseman with term to the mix. The team has decent depth for the third pairing. But if Gardiner suddenly becomes available on a one-year ‘prove it’ type deal for say $2 million, he could help the Hurricanes get back to five top four defenseman like 2018-19 and also add much-needed power play help.
I missed on the fact that the Canes would not be willing to commit to term, but the basic thesis of continuing to opportunistically add players who are discounted for whatever reason came to fruition.
On Jake Gardiner
Gardiner is a proven NHL defenseman who has filled a top 4 role for the Maple Leafs for multiple years. He is a left shot who is capable of playing an offensive game but has at times times been much-maligned for his defensive play. The burning question with Gardiner is whether his defensive play is that problematic or if maybe instead he is just a good but not great second pairing defenseman who suffered from being under the microscope in Toronto as a top and maybe overslotted blue liner on a team that was weak defensively. Gardiner legitimately garnered negative attention at times for being prone to an occasional ‘oops’ and some rough patches defensively, but I also think he suffered from Toronto not having a stalwart defensive partner who could balance his skill set and a media environment that can go full microscope at the drop of a puck.
The hockey world can and will debate the merits of Gardiner, but at a basic level, he is a player who has been at least capable of filling a top 4 role on a team that lacked a ton of help defensively but still made the playoffs each of the past two seasons with Gardiner in a leading role.
Plotting Jake Gardiner into the Canes universe
Plotting him into the Canes blue line universe, I see him level-wise as being similar to Calvin de Haan. Interestingly, his salary is lower but similar too. I view Gardiner as being a capable second pairing defenseman and/or one who could play in the top 4 of a balanced set if paired with a strong complementary player. But I do not view Gardiner as a top guy of the type who carries his pair. Gardiner is on the opposite end of the spectrum from de Haan in terms of skill set. Whereas de Haan leaned safe and sound defense and was light on offense, Gardiner is nearly an opposite who can boost the offense but maybe comes with some defensive issues.
Another interesting comparison is Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton arrived with the same scouting reports as a capable offensive player who was prone to lose it defensively sometimes. A key difference is that Hamilton’s offensive gift is more pure goal scoring whereas Gardiner is more of a puck-carrying skate and create type.
Not to be lost is how perfectly that fits into what the Hurricanes are doing at a broader level roster-wise. The team continued to build a lineup built to play fast and aggressive both on the forecheck and with the puck. Dzingel and Haula actually increase the average speed of a team that was already well above average for fast in the NHL. Necas would do the same. Gardiner is the type of defenseman who skates well enough to step up into the play even on a fast team and also how can carry and distribute the puck from the back end to start up transition offense. At least in terms of skill set on the offensive side of the puck, Gardiner is a perfect fit for what the Hurricanes want to do.
Considering where he fits in the lineup
The team could go a number of different directions with Gardiner in the lineup. Especially if van Riemsdyk is out of the lineup to start the year, simplest might be to not make changes and just let Gardiner acclimate initially as the veteran half of a third pairing that is not subjected to as many of the hard minutes. This would give Gardiner a chance to become familiar with the team, build a base with confidence and balance out the blue line across three pairings. He could also be an interesting complement for Brett Pesce. As I noted above, I think key situational context of Gardiner’s play in Toronto was the fact that the blue line in total was ‘meh’ and devoid of true top end talent. That puts a player like Gardiner who leans offense in a tough spot sometimes. Could Gardiner’s puck-carrying ability with maybe need for a bit of help defensively mesh well with Pesce’s steady defensive play? In terms of slotting Gardiner up into the top 4, that is that match that is most intriguing to me.
Regardless of where he slots at even strength, Gardiner figures to jump immediately into the mix on the power play. It is no secret that the power was a sore spot for the 2018-19 team, and I think a significant part of that stems from lacking players with quarter back type abilities and a system that empowers that. Slavin is a great player and competent on the power play, but it just is not his greatest strength. Hamilton has more to give, but he and Faulk are trigger men not really puck distributors. I think ideally the team wanted to run the power play from the side where players like Aho and Teravainen could serve a puck distribution type of role. But teams recognized the lack of a true quarter back up top and therefore adjusted to take away passing options from that spot. Prior to the arrival of Gardiner, I saw Jake Bean as the greatest hope in terms of a point player who could truly orchestrate a power play. But Gardiner has the potential to add more of an element of a quarter back from the point. I could even see the Hurricanes going back to two defenseman on the power play with Faulk or Hamilton as shooters to complement Gardiner’s puck distribution. Regardless, Gardiner is certain to see ice time on the power play and at least brings another option as the team tries to improve in this regard for 2019-20.
The salary cap basics
Some will look at CapFriendly and declare that the Hurricanes are now over the salary cap with a need to make another trade. That actually is not the case. If one adjusts Brian Gibbons and Clark Bishop out of the forward group and removes one of Fleury or Forsling, the roster is then 12 forwards, 7 defenseman and 2 goalies with a salary cap hit of $80.756 million. That actually leaves enough to add one more forward with a $745,000 salary to max out the salary cap. So at a basic level, the math works at the NHL level WITHOUT having to trade an NHL player. In addition, if Trevor van Riemsdyk starts the season on injured reserve, that would immediately start to create a bit more cushion for later.
…But there are little domino effects
But despite the fact that the Hurricanes do not need to make a trade to become salary cap compliant for opening day, there are still significant domino effects from this deal. The Hurricanes now have nine defensemen on one-way NHL contracts all of whom must clear waivers to go to the NHL. With Gardiner, the proven NHL group is now Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton and Trevor van Riemsdyk plus Gardiner who makes six. Behind that established group are Haydn Fleury, Gustav Forsling and Roland McKeown. The Hurricanes will need one of those players to be a seventh defenseman and might even be able to hold two short-term if van Riemsdyk is not ready to start the season. But because each of the three players needs to clear waivers, I suspect that the Hurricanes will shop some combination of those three players looking to prune the depth a bit and add a draft pick or two. The return will not be tremendous, but if you can get even a mid/late round draft pick for a player who is #8 or #9 on your blue line depth chart and might be lost on waivers anyway, I think you take it.
…And also potentially bigger dominoes
De Haan’s departure got the Hurricanes back to having four top 4 defensemen in terms of experience/skill level and also salary. Gardiner pushes them back to having an extra a five. The model worked well in 2018-19 with the defense being a strength and the team benefiting from having extra options over the course of a long 82-game season. So this is not a situation that the Hurricanes must immediately resolve. But this move does significantly change the long-term dynamics. First and foremost, the team is back to having five top 4 defenseman for four slots. Also significantly, the Hurricanes again have three top 4 defenseman (Slavin, Pesce and Gardiner) locked in long-term for a grand total of $13.4 million. That at least opens up the possibility of trading a top 4 defenseman. With Justin Faulk scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and Dougie Hamilton the following summer, adding another defenseman with contract term increases flexibility. The Canes probably need to re-sign one of Faulk or Hamilton but not necessarily both. And with Gardiner in tow, the team does not become short until the 2021-22 season.
Faulk’s situation is most interesting since he is first to become a free agent. Certainly the team has had preliminary talks with Faulk’s agent on what a next contract might look like. After rebounding in 2018-19, could Faulk be on track for $8 million per year for his next contract? That feels high to me, but when you look at the market, it might not be. At that point, is Faulk, who also had a stretch of being good offensively but at times struggling defensively without enough help around him, significantly better than Gardiner who costs half as much?
I do not think anything is necessary or imminent on the blue line trade front, but I think the core at least until things sort out just became Slavin, Pesce and Gardiner. That would suggest that the Hurricanes would at least take calls and consider deals for Faulk or Hamilton.
Wheeling, dealing and doing math
One of my Twitter comments after the deal was announced suggested that the Hurricanes have a leg up on the rest of the NHL in terms of understanding exploiting salary cap math and understanding the all-important ratio of ‘Level of Play to Salary’. I think it is fair to say that Gardiner is imperfect as a top 4 defenseman. But in a market where the going rate to add a top 4 defenseman is rapidly approaching $8 million, $4 million is a good price for proven defenseman even if maybe he is a #3 or #4 defenseman.
Don Waddell’s willingness and ability to do deals also stands out here. The Hurricanes parted ways with Calvin de Haan and did not get a ton in return. More than anything, I think this deal was risk mitigation getting out of three years of a contract for a player who had significant shoulder surgeries in consecutive years. But if you consider the Hurricanes blue line maneuvering in total and if the team ultimately trades a player from the depth of fringe AHL/NHL defenseman, the result will be that the team traded Calvin de Haan and his injury risk plus Aleksi Saarela for Jake Gardiner who maybe better fits the Canes style, a mid-round draft pick and goalie depth. The deal itself does not look overwhelmingly positive, but I think trading out of injury risk and trading into a player who maybe better fits the Canes style is a positive.
Climbing up by stepping on opponents’ heads
Though the team would not do a deal of this significance solely for this reason, there is an interesting side effect in terms of beating the competition. With training camps starting up, Gardiner needed to sign somewhere. Had the Canes not stepped in, might he have cowered to the Maple Leafs cap issues and signed a cheap one-year deal to stick with what was familiar for one year? I especially like adding to Toronto’s woes. I think that team is destined to ultimately sign Mitch Marner but still fail going forward because it did not allocate enough resources to their blue line which will haunt them each and every playoffs. Or if not Toronto, might Gardiner have signed a one-year Patrick Maroon type deal with another Eastern Conference team? Instead, he is off the market and teams that need help defensively will need to look elsewhere.
— I like the signing. What wins the day for mean is the price to value ratio. Even with his issues, I view Gardiner as being a $4.5-6 million defenseman in today’s market. Because it is September and he lost the game of salary cap musical chairs, the Hurricanes got a discount on him.
— Sometime between now and when van Riemsdyk returns to NHL action, I think the Hurricanes will trade a young depth defenseman to prune a bit and collect modest value versus just risking the waiver wire. My wild guess….Roland McKeown for a fourth round draft pick first and possibly a Gustav Forsling deal later.
— I do think this opens up the phone lines for a possible trade of Justin Faulk or Dougie Hamilton (or van Riemsdyk even once he returns and proves to be healthy), but I do not see this as imminent. The team was successful with a deep group of five defensemen last season, and with a goal to win again in 2019-20 it could go the same route.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the Hurricanes adding Jake Gardiner today?
2) Where do you see him slotting into the lineup?
3) What and when do you expect a next domino to fall in terms of rebalancing the blue line both short-term and long-term?
2/? This rebalances blue line a bit adding 2nd left D. In addition, this gets @CanesNHL up to 3 signed long-term which is significant with Faulk, Hamilton and van Riemsdyk free agents either this summer or next.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) September 6, 2019
3/? If you adjust for bumping few players to AHL, Gardiner pushes #Canes to about exactly salary cap ceiling. Next domino does not have to be trading NHL players/salary but rather trying to collect some value for 1 or 2 of depth defenseman (McKeown, Fleury, Forsling, etc.).
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) September 6, 2019