Free agency has calmed down, and now the NHL summer has begun in earnest.  It’s vacation time for most of the league, and it is rosterbation time for many fans. The spectacular main event of the summer has already happened, and so Leaf Twitter has little else to do, except to try and make speculative trades for Jake Gardiner.

Here’s the problem with that.

Jake Gardiner Is A Good Player

No, he isn’t! I hear people shouting.  He is.  He isn’t a perfect player, by any means.  Sometimes he makes plays in his own zone as if he were put into hypnosis by an evil wizard.  He had a truly unfortunate Game 7 against Boston, one which will likely forever blot out that he was our best defenceman in Games 1-6.

Our boy Jake is the epitome of the Big Mistake defenceman.  When you see Jake Gardiner screw up, it’s a bad pass in his own zone or him missing a coverage, and it burns itself into your brain like a deep-seated Leaf fan trauma.  That’s what people remember.  Defending Gardiner as a player in arguments to other fans can feel a bit like Milhouse from the Simpsons.

What about all the times he didn’t screw up?  No one talks about those times!

It’s understandable that people don’t, of course.  But they should!

It’s well-trod ground by now, but Jake Gardiner is a phenomenal fancy stat player.  He consistently moves shot attempts in the right direction, and has formed excellent pairings with a number of players.

To elaborate: over the past four seasons, six Leaf defencemen have played at least 2000 minutes at five-on-five, and they are Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, Morgan Rielly, and Dion Phaneuf.  Jake leads that group in points per 60 minutes, Corsi For (shot attempts for), Corsi Rel (shot attempts relative to his teammates), expected goals for, and kind of hilariously, +/-.  The Leafs outshoot their opponents, and outscore them, with Gardiner on the ice at even strength.  Jake himself racks up the points and can quarterback a power play.  These are all good things.

My esteemed colleague Arvind had a neat tweet about this recently:

Player A is Jake Gardiner, bane of many fans’ existence.  Player B is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is widely considered an elite 1D.  Here’s another chart, with thanks to CJ Turtoro’s charts and apologies to Nikita Zaitsev:

I wouldn’t put as much weight on this microstats as some other things, but it’s worth noting that Jake rates as a second or third defenceman in every one of these stats.  (For what it’s worth, over the last two years Rielly is great generally but worse at Breakups/60 and Possession Exit %; Hainsey is great for Entry Defense and abysmal elsewhere, as does Dermott in what sample he has.)

Now, this doesn’t mean that Jake is perfect, or that he doesn’t make mistakes, because again, he does.  It’s just the fact is the Leafs outscore, outshoot, and outchance the opposition when he’s on the ice, and over his career, his impact on helping them do so is obvious.  There’s nothing else to it, really.

You don’t have to assume these stats are the be-all and the end-all; you don’t have to accept Jake is better than Morgan Rielly.  Just that of all our defencemen, Jake Gardiner is clearly now one of the best two.*  Agreed?  Okay.

*Travis Dermott is excellent; he has also played 37 regular-season games primarily on the third pair.  You should be really, really wary of assuming he’s going to be able to do what Jake can next season; even if you do, all the same logic below still applies to Gardiner.  There’s no law saying you can’t have multiple good puck-moving defenceman at one time.

The Leafs Are Very Good, But Their Defence Isn’t Really

The Leafs have arguably the best forward group in the NHL now.  With Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri, they’re primed to have the legaue’s best 3C, and their top two centres give way only to Pittsburgh’s Crosby/Malkin and Edmonton’s McDavid/Draisaitl.  They have two elite, and still improving, wingers to go along with those two in Mitch Marner and William Nylander; their winger group is definitively better than Edmonton’s and is at least competitive with Pittsburgh’s.

This is a Leafs team that tied for third in scoring last year and then added a superstar centre, albeit while losing a couple of quality Fs.  This is a team that was fifth in the league last year.  By any stretch, this team should now be trying to contend.

At the same time, this is a team that gave up a lot of shots against (28th in the league last year), and has mostly won by virtue of its offence.  Some may be tempted to say this is why you have to replace Jake; you have to improve defensively.  But Jake is one of the players who is consistently helping us win the shots and goals battles.  Ideally, you would like to add to him; trading him away for someone with the same impact leaves you robbing Peter to pay Paul.  If you can replace him with someone with a significantly better impact, go for it, but that leaves you basically hoping another GM with a top-pairing RD doesn’t know it and is an idiot.  Even Marc Bergevin at least got a 1D back for PK Subban.

The Leafs, in short, should be trying to contend for the Stanley Cup this year.  Subtracting one of their best two defencemen makes the team worse when it should be trying to be at its best.

Present Wins

As people will remind you, Jake Gardiner is on an expiring contract (he will be an unrestricted free agent as of July 2019.)  It will be hard for the Leafs to extend him at his market value (although not impossible, if they unload the Patrick Marleau or Nikita Zaitsev contracts.)  People dislike the idea of “losing Gardiner for nothing”—that is, allowing him to leave via free agency rather than recouping some kind of asset for him in a trade.

There is an idea that’s been prevalent in baseball for a while, and that applies to other sports, including hockey, which is the concept of “present wins vs. future wins.”  Present wins, as you would guess, are wins you’re getting now; when you add players who are currently better than the players you have this season, you are adding present wins.  Future wins are wins that come in seasons later than this one.  Every team that trades a player for a draft pick is trying to acquire future wins.  This is pretty intuitive; most trade deadline deals are one team trading to get future wins (picks and prospects)  and the other trading for present wins (current players.)

So, you’re a team that wants to win a championship.  The implications of the present wins idea are that when you’re a very good team, you should try to add present wins, so that you can be the best team and have the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup.  When you are garbage, like, I don’t know, the Ottawa Senators, you should be trading away present wins, because all they’re doing is moving you up a spot in the league’s basement and hurting your draft position.  It would be very silly for a team in Ottawa’s position, for example, to trade its future wins away by dealing a first-round pick.

Toronto, remember, just finished in the top five in the NHL, and then pretty definitely improved in the course of a major free agency, not to mention many of Toronto’s best players are young enough that they might improve while only a few (Marleau and Hainsey) are old enough we would expect them to decline.  On paper, the Leafs are behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning and possibly the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators.  John Tavares is still in his prime.If Toronto isn’t trying to contend now, when are you expecting them to contend?  When are you going to be ready to try, seriously, to win?

Jake Gardiner is present wins.  Remember, he’s one of our best defencemen right now, and he’s on a one-year deal.  The kind of team that should be trying to acquire Jake Gardiner is one that is poised to contend but whose weakest position is defence.  Like, uh, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What Kind Of Trade Is Out There?

This is not to say you should never trade for future wins, even if you’re a contender.  But for a Jake Gardiner trade to make sense, either we have to get so many future wins coming right up that we still benefit from hurting ourselves this season, or we have to somehow come out ahead in present wins.  Let’s look at these in turn.

If you were to get a very good right-shooting defenceman back, you should of course trade Jake Gardiner.  But to capitalize in the next few years, when the Leafs should be contending, it would have to be a player who is likely to contribute soon—and the farther away the player is from the NHL, the less certain you are of what you’re getting.  The ideal is a very good right-shooting defenceman who is on the NHL’s doorstep, but who is blocked out by a strong defence lineup.

The ideal player of this type would be Calgary’s Rasmus Andersson; a second option might be Nashville’s Dante Fabbro.  The question becomes, though, why does Calgary or Nashville want a left-shooting defence rental?  Both of those teams have their left sides locked up for at least two years (Mattias Eklholm and Roman Josi in Nashville; Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Noah Hanifin in Calgary.)  For the same reason, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to look to Gardiner for an extension; you’re not going to pay $5-6M to extend your third-pair LD.  If they were to deal out quality RD prospects, you would think in both cases the teams would rather get back scoring forwards.  This is the crux of the problem we talked about before: the ideal team to acquire Jake Gardiner is Toronto, and the ideal trading partners for Toronto are unlikely to make as much use of him as we do (or they wouldn’t have spare defencemen.)

As for draft picks, good luck getting value back.  A team looking for an LD rental is going to be picking late, and even a first-rounder in that range is 50-60% to produce an NHL player eventually; it’s much worse than that to produce a player of Gardiner’s calibre.  Remember, also, that the median NHL prospect who makes it makes it four years post-draft.  Even for first-round picks the median one (including picks that bust) is entering the league after three or four seasons.  They would be bearing fruit probably after Nazem Kadri is gone and John Tavares is into his thirties, or in other words, after our best shot at a Cup.

What about present wins, then?  Can we win a left-right swap, maybe?

Again, not many teams are very strong on the right side and very weak on the left, because there are more left-shooting defencemen in the NHL than there are right-shooting ones.  Carolina is likely shopping Justin Faulk, but they have Jacob Slavin and Calvin De Haan locked on their left side anyway, and if they aren’t shopping Faulk for a forward I’ll eat my hat.  Maybe you could do a rental swap for Winnipeg’s Tyler Myers, but he’s worse than Gardiner except at being tall and shooting right, and he’s also on an expiring deal.  One assumes people would equally lament losing him for nothing.

So Why Don’t We Just Win A Trade?

At the heart of most trade speculation is the idea that we’re going to rob somebody blind.  If you can do that, absolutely, do it.  It should go without saying that you should take a trade that is an obvious win for the Leafs, where the wins (present or future) stack up so high it’s a no-brainer.  It would take an opposing GM overrating the hell out of Jake Gardiner and underrating the hell out of his own players.

But I have to wonder: what are the chances Jake Gardiner is going to be really overrated?

Jake Gardiner is not the kind of tough defenceman old-school GMs fall in love with.  I don’t think Peter Chiarelli, for example, is going to give up the moon for him.  The people who like Gardiner usually like analytics, which means they probably aren’t giving up some blossoming skating RD for him.  It’s hard enough to say “just go win a trade” at the best of times, but if anything I suspect Jake Gardiner is somewhat undervalued by the market of NHL GMs.  The return you’re getting for him probably isn’t wildly greater than his value.

Why Do People Want Rid Of Jake?

I think there are three reasons people want to trade Jake Gardiner, from different types of fans.

  1. It’s summertime and we’re bored.  (This is everybody.)
  2. He makes mistakes and what some people really want is to stop having to play him.  (This is what the Big Mistake does to you.  It makes you want to trade one of your best two defencemen.  Because again and again: no matter how frustrating he can be, the Leafs without Gardiner are worse than they are with him.)
  3. The idea of losing an asset for nothing is frustrating.

That third one comes from some pretty well-educated fans, often, and in some ways it makes sense.  You should try to maximize the value you get on your team.  The problem is that maximizing an asset can lose sight of what you’re maximizing it for.

People will phrase the argument as getting a little worse this year so that the Leafs can be stronger contenders for many years to come.  That’s great; as we saw before, those trades are hard to actually pull off once you start actually looking for one.  I think there’s something a little more primal at play here, believe it or not: it’s fear.

Potential, as Katya likes to say, is never going to break your heart in a Game 7.  If we’re rolling assets forward over and over, we’ll never have to get too invested in a given season; the rebuild is still ongoing, the future is still bright, and soon we’ll be better and all these problems will go away.  This is a nice thought, but it isn’t reality anymore.  The future is now.  The Leafs are trying to contend now.  And that’s scary, because maybe it won’t work out and we’ll get our hopes crushed cheering for the best team we’ve had in this city in decades. But it’s nonetheless true.  It’s time to go for it.  Keeping another season of Jake Gardiner, who will make beautiful plays and skate like a dream and sometimes fuck up spectacularly, is going for it.  It might work, it might not, but this is where we’re at now.

So let’s go.  You’re our guy, Jake.  Bring us a ring.