While most of the top players in unrestricted free agency signed quickly, that has not been the case for Jake Gardiner. While he was viewed as arguably the top defenseman available (once Erik Karlsson re-signed with San Jose in June), his market has seemingly been slow to develop.
In an appearance on his podcast for TalkNorth (audio link), Michael Russo of The Athletic provided an update on Gardiner’s situation. Beyond his initial asking price, some teams were concerned over the fact that he opted to not have surgery to fix his back issue, instead opting for rest and rehab. Knowing that the potential exists for him to eventually need to go under the knife is a possible red flag when you’re pondering committing a long-term deal.
Nonetheless, he reports that Gardiner may already know his next destination, suggesting that there is handshake deal in place at this time. However, the team signing him needs to make a trade (likely a high-priced defender) in order to clear out the cap space to move him.
While he’s coming off of a down season offensively that saw him record just three goals, he’s only one year removed from recording 52 points and as we’ve seen, players that are capable of putting up that type of production are getting big contracts. Accordingly, our projection for him before free agency opened up was a five-year, $32MM deal, a sizable raise on his previous contract worth $4.05MM.
Although it’s easy to say that all a team needs to do is clear out a sizable contract to make room for him, it’s often trickier to actually pull it off. Quite a few teams are already over the Upper Limit (or project to be over once they fill out their roster) and there are only so many teams with the budget space and willingness to take on a big-ticket deal. On the flip side, defensemen are often in demand so there may be more trade options compared to a team trying to move out a forward.
While Gardiner may be holding up the rest of the UFA defense market, it appears there could be a resolution in place already. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see if the signing team can find a way to clear out a contract. Considering the slow-moving market when it comes to freeing up money, it may still be a little while yet before the 29-year-old puts pen to paper on his next deal.