May 10, 2021.
That was the last time that Jake Gardiner played an NHL game.
Since then, the Carolina Hurricanes revamped their defense, replaced their goaltending, added a couple of key pieces to their forward depth, won the Metropolitan Division but are still stuck in the same place in terms of pursuing the ultimate goal.
Gardiner on the other hand, has been off the ice for over a year and had surgery on both his back and hips.
So the two are in an awkward state with a team desperate to improve anywhere it can and a player who will need time just see if he can even get back to a competitive state.
So with the two sides no longer seeming like a good match to be made, what’s the next step?
The most logical outcome for what will happen to Gardiner’s tenure in Carolina is the route of the buyout.
Gardiner carries a $4.05 million cap hit — that’s more than Brett Pesce’s cap hit, mind you — that will be hard for Carolina to swallow while they are wanting to make the most of their competitive window.
While the Canes were able to make key use of Gardiner’s cap hit while he was on LTIR this past season, that won’t be an option this year and the best course of action is to get out from under it.
He is the third highest paid defenseman on the team but he just isn’t a top four player anymore. He can still be useful in a depth role or as a power play specialist, but he won’t be able to take on the minutes required of a top-four role.
So what will be the impact of the buyout look like?
Buying out the last year of Gardiner’s contract would put the Hurricanes on the hook for $1,083,334 in 2022-23 and $1,483,334 in 2023-24.
While cap space is precious, the buyout would save the Hurricanes $2,966,666 against the cap for this coming season with some major holes needing to be re-signed or replaced. That is significant money that can make or break a negotiation.
The second year impact of the buyout is a little higher, but the Canes currently only have four contracts expiring in 2023-24, all for players over the age of 30, so that increase is negligible.
While nobody is lining up out the door for an older defenseman coming off major surgeries, for the right price, there are a few teams out there that would be willing to swing a deal with Carolina.
But what would it cost to move Gardiner out?
The Minnesota native has just one year left on his deal with a cap hit of $4.05 million but an actual owed salary cost of $4.45 million.
He also has a seven team, modified no-trade clause meaning that he can axe a deal if he so chooses should one of those seven teams be who Carolina tries to trade with.
Would the draft pick hungry Arizona Coyotes be willing to take on Gardiner?
Last season, the Coyotes picked up 35-year old defenseman Anton Stralman on the final year of a $5.5 million for a second-round pick and a prospect and 29-year old Shayne Gostisbehere with two years remaining on a $4.5 million deal for a second and seventh round pick.
A similar deal could work for Carolina.
The Canes have a wealth of middle tier prospects and all but a 2022 first-round pick for the next three draft years. They have the pieces to make something work and it shouldn’t cost anything major to move out an expiring deal to a rebuilding team.
The final option is that the Hurricanes simply lets Gardiner play out the final year of his contract.
It’s no secret that the Canes needed a better second power play quarterback last season and Gardiner’s resume fits that bill.
In 94 games with Carolina, Gardiner registered four goals and 32 points with 14 of those being power play points.
He was an excellent puck mover who helped the transition game through the neutral zone and had a knack for getting passes through from the blueline.
However, coming off of surgery for his back and both of his hips is a major red flag and the question of just how effective he will actually be is a key one.
Data suggests that, for hip surgeries, players who have dealt with prolonged symptoms — as Gardiner has in the past — and those around the age of 30, generally won’t see long careers after these types of surgery.
While we don’t know the specifics of Gardiner’s injuries, it is common knowledge that at least his back injuries have been an issue since is time in Toronto. He’s had multiple procedures done and while maybe this was the one, it seems that this surgery may not be a long-term solution and instead just a temporary bandage.
The bottom line is that Gardiner is just too risky and too expensive to keep around for another year, which is just an unfortunate case of competing for the cup.
He had some strong moments in Carolina, but it did take him a long time to adjust. Now coming off of more than a year away from the team along with those major injury concerns, the opportunity and time are just no longer there to wait for him to try and keep up.