The Maple Leafs are finally waking up, sign Jake Gardiner to five-year extension

Rory Boylen
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Late Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jake Gardiner came to an agreement on a five-year extension with a $4.05 million cap hit as reported by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

This past season, Gardiner was in the rumor mill often as trade bait for Toronto to potentially land the No. 1 center they’d covet. After the season, it was speculated he and the team would work towards a short-term bridge contract, kind of like the one P.K. Subban signed with Montreal two years ago. But with the obvious cultural and strategic changes going on in Toronto’s head office, it shouldn’t surprise us that the team deviated from its old patterns.

If all goes according to plan, these surprisingly good moves will become less and less surprising.

If Gardiner hits the peak of his potential, he will become an elite and swift puck-moving blueliner, the kind you need to succeed in a league that is starting to put a premium on possession. But even if his development flattens, his natural skill set is valued in the NHL – and he doesn’t have a no-trade clause attached to this deal (just sayin’).

And though we’ve caught glimpses of Gardiner’s huge upside (especially this past season) his numbers haven’t yet flourished on such a poor team. The 24-year-old’s corsi for percentage at even strength last year was a rather low 46.4 percent, but it was still the highest on Toronto’s roster. His 10 goals and 31 points topped his full-season totals from 2011-12 – and 19 of those points came in the final 41 games, when Gardiner was playing some of his best NHL hockey yet. He was second only to Dion Phaneuf in average ice time per game.

What the Leafs are betting on with this five-year pact is that there’s plenty more to come from Gardiner and he’ll grow into a contract that will look like a steal by the end of it as he matures and the cap ceiling rises. They also bought one of his UFA years, which could be extremely valuable by Gardiner’s age 27 season. Seems like a good bet for a terrible team to make – the latest in a trend that should have Leafs fans excited.

As for the $4.05 million cap hit, it’s not a steal today, but it’s also not an overpayment. Consider Luke Schenn, a player the Leafs couldn’t get rid of fast enough, makes $3.6 million for the Flyers and Nikita Nikitin just signed a $4.5 million deal with Edmonton this summer. It cost Carolina $4.83 million to lock up Olympian Justin Faulk for the long-term and $4.3 million for the Panthers to sign Dmitry Kulikov, another long-standing player in the rumour mill.

The most intriguing thing about this signing and the smaller moves that came before it, though, is Toronto’s continued transition towards a more promising way of building a roster. This summer, they have been turning heads with shrewd depth signings, such as the ones that landed them bottom-six forwards Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli, players with strong possession stats in minor roles. They also bought low on David Booth and Petri Kontiola to see what those two can offer at this stage for one year. None of these signings will put the team over the top and make them a lock for the playoffs, but they do signify a much-needed change in direction. Where Toronto used to waste a roster spot on a Colton Orr or Fraser McLaren, they’re now finding value and acquiring it.

In Gardiner, the value comes in taking a small leap with a young player who has tons of upside. It’s a “risk” the Leafs we had come to know were more apt to take on an aging, overvalued player such as David Clarkson, the type that’s almost impossible to get out from under.

With the old regime, Gardiner may have had to settle for that rumored bridge contract or, even worse for Leafs fans, a trade for a veteran player. But this team is starting to move in a more progressive and thoughtful direction. The Kyle Dubas hiring as assistant GM last week brought this conversation to the fore, but the moves being made are showing that the promise is actually real.

Remember in 2012-13, after Gardiner had already played one full NHL season, he sustained a concussion and spent 43 games in the American League with the Marlies. He had a chafing relationship with coach Randy Carlyle and the #FreeJakeGardiner campaign was kicked off on Twitter by his agent. It appeared Gardiner’s tenure with the team could have ended at any moment – a short-sighted decision that likely would have ended in disaster for Toronto over the long-term the way so many others before it had.

Today, finally, Leafs fans can feel like the cloud that has hung over this team for so long may finally be lifting. A Cup is still well out of reach and the playoffs are still going to be a long shot in 2014-15, but the process to put this team on a new course is under way.

For the first time in a long, long while, Leafs fans can have confidence that management is on the right trail. What’s next?

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