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UFA Spotlight: Should the Devils Go For Jake Gardiner?

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The Devils are in need of a top flight defender. With Karlsson likely to command ungodly amounts of cash. Gardiner is the runner-up defender of the free agent class so we profile him here.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I looked at the top 5 reach, target, and safety UFA pickups as sorted by GAR, and then Gerard chose one from each tier to focus on. Today I’ll select a defender that we did not spotlight - Jake Gardiner.

Before I get into some of the specifics, I’d like to preface who Jake Gardiner is. Gardiner is a 6’2’’, 200-lb lefty defender for the Maple Leafs who was chosen 17th overall and has played 20+ minutes every season since entered the league as a 21-year-old in 2012. With Erik Karlsson as the runaway choice at the top of the 2019 crop of UFA defenders, there is not much else available for teams looking to boost the top of their blue line. Gardiner is likely the #2 guy and the gap from him to #3 (probably Myers?) is stark.

So what kind of player is he? To give a more personal angle, I asked Ian Tulloch, a Maple Leafs writer for The Athletic, for his opinion on Gardiner. This is what Ian told me:

He’s consistently driven play throughout his career (Shots, xG, even Goals are HUGE in the Leafs’ favour when he’s on the ice relative to when he’s off the ice). Fans get pissed when he makes a skilled play and it results in a turnover, but the pros outweigh the cons. He’s a stretch pass machine though.

He goes on to talk about the injury history, which we’ll address later. But first, let’s focus on this. Gardiner is a good puck mover with a strong on-ice impact that makes some high-profile gaffes. As an example check the 2018 Game 7 against Boston (video). Gardiner was on the ice for the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th goals against. In several of them he looks to be playing some Severson-esque lackadaisical hockey in his own zone.

People in comments at this blog, at other blogs, and on twitter have all drawn the comparison between Severson and Gardiner due to their profiles as puck-movers with uninspired defensive play. I think this gives us a good basis for evaluating Gardiner since we’re all very familiar with Severson.

Here’s where the people calling them the same player are right...

They have virtually the same transition profile. They’re both highly efficient in entries, prolific in exits, responsible at defending the blueline, and strong shot contributors (primarily through passing). This is important because, as I showed at RITSAC 2018, defender transition metrics can be more predictive of future success than existing on-ice metrics. Both score highly in this regard. Based on what I’ve seen from him, they play similarly in the eye test as well. One is 6’2’’ 205 lbs, the other 6’2’’ 203 lbs, both get about 60-100 hits a year so they’re similarly physical, they both move the puck very well, but both are slow to pick up assignments in their own end.

Here’s how they’re not the same though...

While they do the same things well, the net impact of their skill-sets are not equivalent. Gardiner has excellent offensive impact in goals, expected goals, and shots. As just one example: according to NaturalStatTrick, Gardiner is 45th among 176 NHL backs with 2000+ 5v5 minutes the past three years in relative expected goal ratio (xGF%Rel: +1.65) whereas Severson is 105th in the metric (-0.76). The simple fact is that Gardiner’s team sees a bigger improvement from his presence than Severson’s does from his.

When all is said and done and we look at their net value, Gardiner grades out as simply a better player. Via EvolvingHockey:

The gap between them is stark. Over the last 3 years, Gardiner has been worth ~35 goals, or about 6 and a half wins. That’s 9th among 193 NHL defenders with 2000+ minutes, just ahead of John Carlson. Severson has been worth -4.7 goals, which is 174th in the league over that span.

So Gardiner has been very good. But what is he going to cost us? Is he worth it?

According to EvolvingWild’s contract predictions, he is expected to get about $7M over 6-8 years. This is a notable discount on Erik Karlsson ($9M), who’s actually been comparably valuable. One of the knocks on Karlsson is that he’s got an injury history including a fairly graphic ankle injury. But Gardiner doesn’t exactly have a clean bill of health himself.

After Ian talked about Gardiner’s game, he briefly discussed his injury status.

He’s had some nagging back spasms over the past 2 years and wasn’t the same player when rushed back in the playoffs. I’d be worried about giving him a long-term contract considering his back injury at his age (we know how age curves work at that end of the spectrum, often because of nagging injuries like a bad back). Just not sure if his elite lateral movement is still gonna be there if his back doesn’t hold up (His edges are what make him special when it comes to dodging oncoming forechheckers, but it wasn’t there in the playoffs). If he recovers 100% for 2019-20, I’d love to have him on my team, but at age 29, are we sure he can be that same player again.

That’s a fairly ominous report on a player that is likely to get a contract lasting at least 6 years. And Ian’s right, the research we currently have indicates defenders are already on the downturn by 24 years old and Gardiner is 29.

Also worth noting is that Gardiner is a lefty and the Devilsunambiguously best analytical defender (Butcher) and the top defensive prospect (Smith) are both on that side as well. You can only play 1 LD at a time so in a couple years, 1 of those guys would have to be under 20 minutes a game. That would mean either Butcher or Smith would likely be getting underused, or Gardiner would be overpayed. However, Smith — as encouraging as his early results are — has yet to play a regular season NHL game and having a fall back may not be a terrible idea. Also, while Butcher should be getting tougher assignments given current personnel, it’s not hard to imagine that his style is better suited to a bottom 4 role. Conversely, Gardiner has been, and has succeeded as, a top pairing defender.

Summarizing Thoughts

Here are the bullet points, which you may parse as you see fit:

Pros

  1. Gardiner is pretty clearly the 2nd best defender available in a UFA class barren at the position.
  2. He’s excellent in transition, has elite on-ice impacts, grading out as a true top pairing defender by pretty much any metric.
  3. He has a proven track record of strong performance against top competition.
  4. Provided he performs at a comparable level to recent years, he would immediately become the best defenceman on the Devils.

Cons

  1. He can be lazy in his own zone, and is prone to high-profile gaffes that will likely draw disproportionate ire from fans.
  2. He is 29 which is on the downside of a defenders career, and he has an injury history which could zap some of what makes him effective.
  3. The Devils best strongest analytical defender and most encouraging prospect both play LD which means someone is likely to be either underused or overpaid if he is signed.
  4. BONUS* UFA is an inefficient time to sign players long-term.

Briefly on #4, since I didn’t really talk about that above: Free agency is a great time to overspend for players. You’re in a bidding war with other teams and so the player has more leverage than almost any other time. In a year like this where missing out on just 2 players (Karlsson/Gardiner) virtually assures that you’ll not be able to acquire a defender through free agency, desperation may kick into high gear and exacerbate the overvaluation.

In response to this titular question, my non-answer is that if the Devils are going for a top flight defender, I think there are only two options and Gardiner has a slightly less concerning injury history than Karlsson, has surprisingly comparable actual impact (especially 5v5), and is likely to be about $2M cheaper. However, I personally am fairly risk-averse when it comes to these things and would likely prefer to just bow out of the sweepstakes entirely — opting for improving the defense long term via draft or trade instead.

Your Thoughts

What do you guys think of adding Gardiner? How does he compare to Severson? How important is it to add a guy like him? Does the injury history or age concern you at all?

Thanks, as always, for reading and leave your thoughts below!