Are the Maple Leafs still in the game on Jake Gardiner?

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 04: Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) skates during the warm-up before a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 04, 2019, at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Do the Leafs still have a chance at retaining Jake Gardiner? (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

We are without real substantiated reports on what exactly has been offered to Jake Gardiner since the free agent window opened one week ago, but the working idea that teams are reluctant to invest significant term in what could be the most impactful free agent remaining in the marketplace was, at least, supported on a recent discussion on NHL Tonight.

He mentions it somewhat in passing, so take it at face value, but NHL Network analyst E.J. Hradek does suggest that Gardiner hasn’t been given the option to sign a deal included with term of upwards of two seasons.

OK, if that is indeed the case, and it remains that way over the next few weeks or months, apparent reservations in the marketplace present Gardiner with an interesting decision — and perhaps an opportunity for the Toronto Maple Leafs. If he can’t secure the big-money contract, the height of his leverage seemingly undercut by his ailing back, what is it then that would appeal most to Gardiner in his efforts to recoup some value?

All along, the prevailing thought has been that Gardiner prefers staying in Toronto, and that he might even be willing to take a haircut to facilitate a return. But because the Maple Leafs have been stretched so thin in their efforts to lock up the core currently exiting entry level, and have essentially cycled out the pre-existing foundation of the roster already, it was just assumed that Gardiner would have priced himself out of Toronto.

Seeing the market cool, though, and having to wait on the multi-year offers valued at $6- and $7 million annually, does it give the Maple Leafs grounds to at least again entertain the thought? And for Gardiner, when does it come to a point where the financial concessions no longer outweigh the lure of returning, at least for one more season?

With Alexander Kerfoot and Cody Ceci officially assigned their values on new contracts brokered late last week following the Nazem Kadri trade, the Maple Leafs to some extent fulfilled their summer obligations — or at the very least presented themselves with a clearer picture. While they might yet wind up having to move out a body to financially satisfy Mitch Marner, the Leafs have left themselves in the neighbourhood of $9-10 million to re-sign the dynamic winger once Nathan Horton is placed on long-term injured reserve.

Providing the finishing touches on the roster will carve out a small amount of cap space as well to use in their roster management, but certainly not enough to house a contract for Gardiner, even with the most extreme hometown discount.

But if Marner does agree before Gardiner offers his signature elsewhere, can the cap space that does remain, plus the little bit of money freed up from LTIR candidates and a few salaries donated to the minor leagues, present at least a starting point on negotiations with Gardiner?

Without some serious cap circumvention, or Marner signing up for a bridge deal, probably not. In all likelihood, entertaining Gardiner’s return would still require a trade. Unloading Ceci before he can earn his $4.5 million in blue and white seems to be the preference of most fans despite the possibility of him receiving sheltered minutes as the right-shot defender on their third pair. But unless the Leafs’ intent is to throw us off the scent, a trade involving Ceci doesn’t seem that likely; all indications so far are that the Leafs plan to use him.

Beyond the former Ottawa Senator, there appears to be few options to consider when looking to free up cap space in the immediate term due to the have and have-not structure that makes up the Maple Leafs roster.

Even so, with mutual interest, tumbleweeds in the market and a player potentially willing to surrender some earning power, bringing Gardiner back doesn’t seem as farfetched as it once did now a week into free agency.

In a perfect scenario, and in stark contrast to paying a premium to achieve positional optimization while incrementally improving the blue line, the Leafs let Gardiner re-establish his value in a unit that now includes Tyson Barrie in addition to Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Travis Dermott.

Assessing the Maple Leafs’ offseason work would be far more favourable should Gardiner be kept in the fold.

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