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Can Jake Gardiner still help the Hurricanes?

After missing an entire season with injury, does Gards have any magic left?

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Just a few months ago, it seemed inconceivable that we’d ever see Jake Gardiner pull on a Carolina Hurricanes jersey again. After losing the entire 2021-22 season to surgeries on both of his hips as well as his back, many assumed that the Canes would find a way to work themselves out from under his contract — either by way of an asset-dump trade or potentially a buyout, if that opportunity had presented itself.

However, right around the start of free agency the narrative around Gardiner changed, which was a surprising to many considering what the uphill battle he’s facing on a return to form. For a team that’s firmly in a Stanley Cup window, it’s obviously a risky move to count on Gardiner providing the type of value you would expect from a player counting for $4.05 million against the salary cap. But with Tony DeAngelo being shown the door and Ethan Bear being unable to fully cement himself, is there really a possibility for Gardiner to help this team?

I’ve always been a fan of the player so maybe I could be a bit bias in this regard, but I’ve always felt like Gardiner has had a bad rep follow him due to his time as a Maple Leaf. His playoff mistakes — while, yes, costly — were severely amplified by the Toronto fanbase and media and in turn he was made into a scapegoat.

When the Canes signed him to a four-year deal in 2019, the reception was mixed. Because of my tendency to watch Sens games, I feel like I had a closer look at Gardiner than most of the Hurricanes fanbase and I knew the player wasn’t nearly as bad as his reputation suggested, and I was elated with the addition. He was Toronto’s PP1 defenseman and had played upwards of 20 minutes a night for their team in all 8 seasons that he spent there, and I figured he could only benefit from a reduced role in Carolina with a stronger defensive supporting cast around him. His defensive game as a whole was also greatly over-criticized, and he does have a little jam to his game.

Fast forward to today, and I’m looking at Gardiner from that same perspective. Don Waddell had mentioned in a radio interview earlier in the offseason that Gardiner was skating really well, and that they expect him to be at training camp to battle for his spot with the rest of the group. With his veteran presence and what he can offer the team as a puck mover from the back-end and a powerplay specialist — two areas the team struggled with consistency last season — who’s to say he can’t re-emerge from the shadows?

Depending on how the Hurricanes plan to deploy their defensemen, there’s a case to be made in Gardiner’s favour. Assuming that the top two pairings are Slavin-Burns and Skjei-Pesce, that leaves a battle of Gardiner, Ethan Bear, Dylan Coghlan, Jalen Chatfield and Calvin de Haan (who’s on a PTO) for what will essentially be 3 spots. Of those defenders, only Gards and de Haan are left-handed, but de Haan can play on the right side as well. Being the only lefty amongst that group currently under contract could give him an upper hand on the bunch.

Beyond that, I think it’s important to analyze the areas that Gardiner can improve this group if his skating checks out. Let’s be honest, the Canes’ powerplay was inconsistent at best last year and consistently failed in the biggest moments. DeAngelo had his limitations on the PP1, but that’s an area that Burns should be able to build on. The seciond PP group had a revolving door of Slavin, Pesce and Bear running it, with neither of the 3 being particularly effective in the role. Here’s an example of his puck distribution and his ability to get pucks through to the net consistently on the man advantage:

Assuming that the Hurricanes would like to avoid a repeat of that issue, Gardiner immediately stands out as the best option for the role amongst the entire D corps, especially when considering his success and familiarity in that role both since arriving to Raleigh and over the course of his career.

The Canes can also afford to keep him fresh and in a sheltered role. They don’t need him to eat up minutes at 5-on-5, nor do they need him to kill penalties or play tough minutes closing out games. They have guys like Slavin, Pesce and Skjei for that. The team’s depth in the top-4 gives them the flexibility to manage the minutes of their third pairing and deploy them in favourable situations and matchups for the group, which is beneficial for both a player like Gardiner and the team as a whole. If you’re in a situation where you’re deploying him with mostly PP minutes and offensive zone starts, there’s a lot he can offer this team. His skill level has never been a concern.

Of course, until we see how he looks in training camp and the preseason, it’s impossible to project. And while Gardiner does have a lot of question marks around him, so does the group of guys he’s competing with:

  • Ethan Bear was scratched for all 14 playoff games, and had a mixed bag of a debut season in Raleigh. With his lack of foot speed and strong puck moving ability, he actually has a lot of similarities to Gardiner as a player, although I find Gardiner to be much more relaxed under pressure.
  • Dylan Coghlan is the new kid on the block, but he’s an unknown commodity as of now. I haven’t watched him play enough to make any judgements on him as a player, so he’ll be a guy I have my eye on throughout the preseason. He’s still only 24 and has good size at 6-2, 210lbs, so let’s see what he’s got.
  • Jalen Chatfield is quite a popular player amongst the Canes fanbase considering he’s only played 16 games for the franchise. He’s a smooth skater and not afraid to get his nose dirty, but the biggest thing he had going for him last season was that he was the anti-Ian Cole and Brendan Smith, and it’s not like he was able to beat those guys out. The competition for Chatfield — at least on paper — looks to be much stronger this offseason. His contract situation (one-way salary in 2023-24) give him a solid chance to clear through waivers again — and I say “again” because he already did last fall.

Unless he really stands out and wins a job, I’m not convinced the Hurricanes will be jumping through hurdles at whatever costs to keep him on the roster. I’m sure they’d absolutely love to keep him in the organization as depth if it came down to it, but I could see him passing through waivers if he’s unable to win his place. Because of how quickly the fanbase got attached to him, it’s easy to forget that he’s 26 and has played just 34 career NHL games and, while he looks to have upside, he’s close to being a finished product and the Hurricanes have a track record of coveting experience. Of the players he’s competing with, he’s the least experienced of the bunch, so I think he has a little bit of an uphill battle here.

  • Last but not least we have former Hurricane Calvin de Haan, who joined the roster on a Pro Tryout Offer (PTO) last week. It was quite a shocking bit of news to see CDH return, especially as he was not a happy camper after being traded out of Carolina just one year after signing a four-year contract in 2018-19. Heading into camp, I actually think de Haan has a solid chance to earn a deal. He’s versatile (plays both the left and right side), has familiarity in the system, and could be a very stabilizing partner for a guy like Gardiner or Bear on the third pairing. He also had a fairly strong season for a bad Chicago team last season, so he figures to be extra motivated coming into camp to earn a role on what should be a contending team. Alas, he doesn’t have a contract yet, which could work against him if he doesn’t stand out from the pack.

So. With all things considered, I’m a firm believer that Gardiner — should he be back anywhere close to full health — is a guy that can provide a much-welcomed dynamic to this Hurricanes group. His strengths are obvious and he’s effective in areas that the notably Canes have struggled in without him in the lineup. If they can limit his defensive zone starts and tough opposing matchups, he could definitely be a positive addition to the group. Regardless, he’s a great dude and I’d love to see him revive his career, whether it be in Raleigh or elsewhere.