The Leafs were exposed defensively against Connor McDavid’s and the Edmonton Oilers. With the playoff push intensifying and the trade deadline approaching, should the Leafs go to the well and liberate Jake Gardiner.
Personally, no. Jake Gardiner is a serviceable defenseman when you look at his career stats, but the aforementioned well is now poisoned for the Brian Burke signee. I don’t know why he’d want to come back, either. The fanfare in Toronto is unparalleled for success, but Gardiner knows how crushing it can be when you’re the epicenter of the failure.
His atrocious playoff performances only bolster the “no” opinion on this potential trade, too. Gardiner was, as mentioned, at the center of the awful game seven performance by the Leafs against Boston. He was -3 on the game and actively contributed to the Bruin’s dominant offensive zone possession and freedom to dictate play in the Leafs zone.
If the Leafs are considering a move for a defenseman, it should be one with a stout defensive playoff record and not a gambling pseudo-offensive defenseman who doesn’t prioritize defense first. We have that in Cody Ceci and if the Leafs are looking to add a defenseman it’ll be at his sacrifice.
A few names to circle that fit the mold of veteran, NHL proven, playoff performers are Sami Vatanen in New Jersey (last year on deal; more offensive option), Alec Martinez from LA (year and a half on contract), and Josh Manson from Anaheim (signed through 2022, has modified NTC).
Any package the Leafs would put together for these players, specifically those with term on their deal, would have to be substantial and would also likely have to include Cody Ceci to make back the cap hit of these players. More importantly, it would be prospects and picks headed in the other direction.
Jeremy Bracco is the name many people have circled as the first to go. He is seemingly the Leafs best prospect on the Marlies right now, but has regressed this season in his ppg compared to his breakout season last year. He is a skilled winger which makes him expendable for the Leafs and has the potential to be a lethal scorer in the NHL. Nick Robertson’s emergence and development should make Bracco movable, too.
There is no pressure to panic into a move now, but Kyle Dubas did get out in front of the defensive issues of the Leafs last season by buying Jake Muzzin from LA in January, so an early move could be expected to avoid other teams setting the market. Of the names mentioned here, the right-shot 6’3″ Josh Manson is my pick. He would be an impact signing now, is controllable, and is a build-around piece for the future as well!