In back-to-back first-round Game 7 losses to the Boston Bruins, the heavily scrutinized Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman didn't bring his best stuff. Could he have played better? Absolutely. Was he the primary reason for his club's early playoff exits? Absolutely not.
After Gardiner signed a four-year, $16.2-million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, most Toronto fans will simply say "good riddance," with Game 7 turnovers imprinted in their minds as they reflect on his tenure in blue and white. In reality, though, he was one of the most underappreciated Leafs players in recent memory and the franchise's second-best defenseman of his generation behind Morgan Rielly.
Looking strictly at the salary-cap era, one could argue Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe were better, but both made a significant portion of their contributions before the 2005 lockout. Dion Phaneuf is probably the only other modern Leafs blue-liner who gives Gardiner a run for his money.
Gardiner was an easy target. Toronto's fan base, for the most part, has always adored the underdog. The player who brings grit, toughness, tenacity, and a chip on his shoulder. Players like Darcy Tucker. Gardiner, at least visibly, didn't offer any of those traits.
The areas in which Gardiner excels aren't as obvious to the casual fan. He's one of the NHL's best puck-movers and transition defensemen. He makes an excellent first pass and, when necessary, can skate his way out of trouble with some of the most unique edge work in the league.
Gardiner is mistake-prone, though, and his mistakes are glaring. Although his net impact in Toronto was far more positive than negative, most Leafs fans couldn't look past his blunders. The home crowd at Scotiabank Arena even booed him whenever he touched the puck during a regular-season game against the Colorado Avalanche in January.
Over the last three seasons, the Leafs controlled 53.3% of the scoring chances, 54.2% of the high-danger scoring chances, and 58.5% of the goals scored with Gardiner on the ice at five-on-five. Those are elite numbers, and they're even more impressive when one considers the fact he had to drag Nikita Zaitsev around for the bulk of those three campaigns.
Here's a look at how Gardiner and Zaitsev performed with and without each other over that span:
Zaitsev w/o Gardiner
Gardiner w/o Zaitsev
CF% = Corsi for (shot attempt) percentage xGF% = Expected goals for percentage GF% = Goals for percentage SCF% = Scoring chances for percentage HDCF% = High-danger scoring chances for percentage
If there was blame to be placed on the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing, Leafs fans should have been pointing their fingers at Zaitsev. Imagine how much more effective Gardiner would've been with a competent partner.
We may find out as early as this season.
A bargain for Carolina
If healthy, Gardiner could prove the most cost-efficient signing of the offseason. That's a big if, considering a back injury kept him out of the Leafs' lineup for 20 games during the 2018-19 season. When he returned for a brief tune-up before the playoffs, it was clear he wasn't himself, and while he'd never admit it on record, it's an obvious excuse for his uneven postseason performance.
That's likely why Gardiner remained on the open market until Friday, and why he signed a deal below market value. Without injury concerns, he would've likely garnered a longer-term contract in the range of $6 million-$7 million annually, comparable to Tyler Myers' five-year, $30-million deal with the Vancouver Canucks.
In joining Carolina, though, Gardiner probably couldn't have landed in a better spot.
Not only are Hurricanes fans more forgiving than those in Toronto, but the team's roster - playing an up-tempo style and thriving on puck possession - is a great fit for his game.
Gardiner will likely slot in on the left side of his new team's second pairing - a familiar spot. But instead of carrying a lackluster partner, he'll likely get a chance to play with one of the league's very best shutdown blue-liners in Brett Pesce. Blossoming into the new Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Pesce is a steadying presence perfectly suited to playing alongside a risk-taker like Gardiner.
Here's a look at the Canes' projected blue line:
*Trevor van Riemsdyk underwent offseason shoulder surgery and could start the season on LTIR
Gardiner will likely receive some power-play time, and at just 29 years old, is set up to have some of the best years of his career in Raleigh. He told reporters other teams offered short-term contracts, but he wanted a long-term deal. The Hurricanes will soon be rewarded for taking a chance on an undervalued asset.
General manager Don Waddell has some shuffling to do to get under the salary cap, but he essentially used the money that would've gone to Justin Williams - who, at least temporarily, has ended his playing career - to fill a gaping hole on the left side of the blue line.
None of this is to say Toronto should've re-signed Gardiner. Though his annual cap hit is the same as it was on his previous deal, the cap-strapped Leafs couldn't afford to wait around and count on him to return without upgrading the defense in the meantime. There are at least a handful of teams, however, that may regret not taking a chance on Gardiner.
Advanced stats courtesy: Natural Stat Trick
Canes get steal in Gardiner - the most underappreciated Leaf of a generation