Jake Gardiner has long been one of the most controversial players in the NHL, and that fact hasn’t changed since the long-time Toronto Maple Leaf became a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Upon arriving in Carolina via free agency in early September, Gardiner was expected to be the power play quarterback that the Hurricanes so desperately needed after getting trounced out of the postseason by the Boston Bruins. A training camp injury and a Norris candidate Dougie Hamilton later, Gardiner suddenly isn’t needed for that purpose. And, adding insult to injury, he’s being shelled in almost every aspect of his counting stats.
In only 16:36 of average TOI across 27 games, Gardiner has just six points and has slid all the way down to a minus-17 rating. Over the years, we have all come to realize that plus/minus is, at the bare minimum, a fundamentally flawed way to evaluate player performance because so much is out of a single player’s control, but that minus-17 is staggering for a number of reasons.
It’s the fourth-worst rating in the NHL, and the worst for any player not on the Detroit Red Wings. Gardiner having a number that low on a Canes team that is in a playoff position is pretty amazing, especially when they’ve played just 27 games.
It’s made even more amazing by the fact that he ranks fifth among Carolina defensemen in 5-on-5 ice time. It’s not like he’s seeing top-pairing minutes against other team’s best lines all the time, but still, he’s a minus-17.
It seems like the only number being talked about with Gardiner is his plus/minus, which is fair to an extent given how horrid the number is, but allow me to present some more numbers.
Gardiner has a 5-on-5 corsi-for percentage of 56.19, which ranks third among Carolina blue-liners. That means, when Gardiner is on the ice, the Hurricanes have 56.19% of the total shot attempts, leaving the other team with just 43.81% of the shot attempts. That’s excellent.
Not all shot attempts are created equal, so let’s narrow it down to high-danger shot attempts. Gardiner’s 5-on-5 high-danger corsi-for percentage is 55.03, which ranks fourth among Canes defenders and still in the top-50 among the 200 NHL defensemen with 150 or more minutes at 5-on-5.
When Gardiner is on the ice at 5-on-5, the Hurricanes have an expected goals-for percentage of 54.78. So, when he’s on the ice, the shot quantities and qualities suggest that the Canes should be scoring just shy of 55% of the goals. The only Canes d-men with both CF% and xGF% better than his are Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin.
Now, let’s contrast those three stats with PDO (on-ice team shooting percentage + on-ice team save percentage). Gardiner’s 5-on-5 PDO is 92.2. Among the 200 NHL defensemen with 150 or more minutes at 5-on-5, his PDO ranks dead last. It’s a horrendous number. It’s so horrendous, in fact, that’s it’s unsustainable.
Dating back to the 2013 lockout, the lowest PDO by a defensemen with 750 or more minutes at 5-on-5 over the course of an 82-game season was 95.4. That number was posted by then Nashville Predators rookie Seth Jones.
When factoring in his possession numbers (both in quantity and quality), you can make a strong case that Gardiner has been the unluckiest player in the NHL this season. There’s really nothing that can justify the -17 on his stat sheet. Additionally, Gardiner’s impact on the man advantage has been seriously hindered by the fact that his unit gets second billing to Hamilton’s unit (as it rightfully should), and his ability to produce power play points is seriously handicapped in that there are no finishers on the ice with him.
Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, and Lucas Wallmark are all on that power play unit. That trio has a combined nine goals this season in all situations, just two on the power play. Staal and Niederreiter specifically have been largely unable to put the puck in the net this season. Over their last 14 games, those two relied-upon offensive players have combined for two goals on 40 shots on goal. That is abysmal and in no way does it set up Gardiner for success on the power play.
The loss of Erik Haula makes things especially hard for the second unit. That power play unit, as currently constructed, has a real lack of talent and goal-scoring ability. When they step on the ice, more often than not, they are retrieving a puck from their own end with about 50 seconds left on the power play as the first unit goes for a line change. From there, they have trouble even entering the offensive zone with possession due in part to that lack of skill up front. And when they do have possession in the offensive zone, they can’t buy a goal because of their inability to finish at the net with consistency.
Despite his good advanced numbers, Gardiner hasn’t been a world beater. And despite his awful plus/minus, he hasn’t been one of the worst defensemen in the NHL.
There are some things that have stood out to me while watching him play.
I’m not sure if it’s just his skating motion or not, but he looks to be struggling at times moving around the ice - almost as if there’s a hitch in his stride. He had a serious back problem late last season that saw his play dip significantly in the postseason. In training camp, he missed additional time. While Gardiner and the team said that it wasn’t related to his injury from the season prior, who knows how much of an effect (if any) it has had on him on the ice.
Hamilton’s first half last season was plagued by a hand injury, and as he recovered and got more comfortable in Carolina’s system, he took off, joining the ranks of the best defensemen in the league. That’s not what anyone should expect out of Gardiner, though. Gardiner is not the defenseman that Hamilton is. This comparison is just to say that, given Gardiner’s injury history even as recent as this season, there’s reason to suspect that he might not be at 100% right now.
It also doesn’t look like he is entirely comfortable yet on this team. Prior to signing with the Canes, he had played eight NHL seasons, all with the Maple Leafs. The transition isn’t always simple, especially when your anticipated role has been snatched by Hamilton, who has played out of his mind so far this season, and have instead been placed on a power play unit with a host of players who are snakebitten in the goal-scoring department and a rookie in Martin Necas.
At even strength, Joel Edmundson’s wild offensive adventure over the last few weeks has taken away any possibility of Gardiner being paired with Brett Pesce (which was the original plan), and instead he’s playing third-pairing minutes with a rotating door of Trevor van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury while seeing a career-low 16:36 of ice time. Entering this season, he never had a season where he had less than 20 minutes of average TOI.
That doesn’t absolve him from his poor decision making and defensive lapses, though. The Hurricanes knew exactly what kind of defensive player they were getting with Gardiner. He makes mistakes that can lead to quality chances against, but even while he’s in PDO hell, he’s still helping the Hurricanes generate more offensive chances than they let up.
The fact of the matter is that he does need to be better. He’s scheduled to get a little north of $4 million per season for the next three seasons after 2019-20. On this blue line, you can’t afford to have a $4 million player get 16 minutes a night and not contribute offensive production.
The flip side is that the Hurricanes also need to figure out the best way to use this player and put him in positions to be successful. His current role doesn’t fit that description, and to get the best results from him, pairing him with Pesce likely has to be the long-term play.
It’s been a particularly rocky start for Gardiner in Carolina, but there’s more than enough reason to think that things will turn around for him sooner rather than later.
All stats are 5v5 score/venue adjusted and are curtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.