After a handful of decent signings, a few smaller trades and one blockbuster, the Colorado Avalanche have already done most of the heavy lifting for their offseason. That doesn’t mean they should be finished building the team for the 2019-20 NHL season. When unrestricted free agents stay on the market past July 1, it’s often because they aren’t getting the offers they expected to. Now is the time to go discount shopping.
When Joe Sakic pulled the trigger on a huge trade to bring Nazem Kadri to Denver, he was able to fill a much needed hole on the second line but it came at the cost of their best puck moving defender. It’s easy to see that Tyson Barrie was becoming expendable with the emergence of Samuel Girard and Cale Makar. That duo gives the Avalanche two of the best young puck-movers in the league with Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins waiting in the wings. Those four defenders are very talented — they’re also very young. With Barrie gone, there is a bit of a void when it comes to experienced puck movers on the Avalanche blue line.
Jake Gardiner could fill that void.
Reports this week suggest that Jake Gardiner has not been able to find the type of term he he’s wanted in a contract offer. Fears of his lingering back issues from last season might be scaring teams off and preventing them from offering more than a two- or three-year contract.
And while that’s a legitimate concern, here’s the thing you should know about Jake Gardiner — he’s really good.
Taking last year’s injury off the table, Gardiner has regularly been one of the best puck moving defenders over his eight-season career. He’s been prone to make some big mistakes at inopportune times and will catch the ire of the home fans as a result (sound familiar). He’s got his detractors, but the fact of the matter is that the numbers show Gardiner is a legitimate top-4 defender on any team in the NHL.
Over the last three seasons, as the Toronto Maple Leafs have gown from basement dwellers to a team some believe can be a legitimate contender, Gardiner has consistently made the team better when he is on the ice. Despite his occasional mishaps, by just about any metric Gardiner is able to do enough positives to drive favorable goal differentials for his team.
Defender WAR 2016-2019
*From Travis Yost @ TSN
Despite a desire to bring him back, the Maple Leafs were forced to let Gardiner walk away this off-season because they need to allocate their resources elsewhere. Toronto was very deep on the left side of the blue line, but the right side was a disaster. With Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Travis Dermott around, Gardiner became the odd man out in order to spend cap money on a right-handed defender like Tyson Barrie.
Many will compare Gardiner to Barrie because they are both great skating defenders who can carry the puck and can start the breakout at an elite level — whether via pass or carrying the puck. While there are similarities from a playing style standpoint, Barrie is a better offensive facilitator while Gardiner is much better on the defensive side of the puck. Given Cale Makar’s expected emergence as the defender that will lead the rush, the Avalanche could definitely use a defender like Gardiner that can move the puck while being more responsible on the defensive side of the puck.
With Erik Johnson and Ian Cole recovering from surgery and no guarantee that either will be in the lineup for the first month of the season, the blue line in Colorado begins to look a pretty thin. Byram could light training camp on fire and force the team to give him a full time spot in the lineup and while that would be great, we shouldn't count on it. He’s more than likely going to end up back in the WHL for one more season — possibly getting the nine game tryout with the Avs to start the year.
That would leave Cole, Johnson, Makar, Girard, Nikita Zadorov, Kevin Connauton, Calle Rosen, Mark Barberio, and Ryan Graves to fill out the defense group with the Avalanche. If Cole and Johnson miss significant time, the depth in that group gets really ugly, really quickly. Gardiner would solve that.
When everyone is healthy, a group the Avalanche would be able to ice a blue line that would be undoubtedly be a strength for the team.
Samuel Girard - Erik Johnson
Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zadorov
Ian Cole - Cale Makar
The question becomes cost. What kind of contract would the Avalanche need to give Gardiner in order for him to come to Colorado. At 29 years old and with back injuries in his past, too much term would be concerning. Luckily, Colorado’s salary cap structure is set up perfectly to allow Sakic to make an offer with a higher average annual value to compensate for a shorter term. Instead of $5.5m over four or five years, Sakic could make an offer north of $6m for only three — or go even higher on a two year term knowing that the team is in no danger of getting to the cap this season or next. Maybe Gardiner would still be looking for a longer term, but it’s worth a shot. Salary cap space is only an asset if you use it properly — this would be a way to do that.
The front office might see the injuries to the veterans as short-term and not be worried about them. They might even be comfortable with the defense group even with Cole and/or Johnson missing an extended period of time. That doesn’t mean Sakic shouldn’t at least kick the tires on bringing in Jake Gardiner to help bolster the group. It’s a move that would add depth, but more importantly improve the lineup for next season.
There are guys who you don’t see as a fit at market value, but as the price comes down they get more appealing. As July moves on and players like Gardiner remain unsigned, the contractual commitment starts to drop and that’s where patient teams find value to improve their team. If there’s one thing we know about how Sakic is building his team, it’s that he knows the value of patience.