Both sides would agree – as would a frantic fan base – the four year relationship between the Hurricanes and Jake Gardiner forged over the summer of 2019 to $4.05 million per season has been off to a rocky start. Measurable performance isn’t flattering and familiar defensive miscues have seeped into his tenure with the Hurricanes.
This is how Gardiner is though, isn’t it? Offensively gifted, flawed defensively – with some justification coming from his developmental years.
I did a deep dive into Gardiner’s development, highlighting his morphing from a forward in his formative years to a full time NHL defenseman. Learning and integrating skills required to play defense isn’t like turning on a switch, it takes focus, lots of practice and intuition grown by the experience of playing it as a young lad. Defense requires a different set of skills than a forward, and having to really learn to play the position while developing in the professional league, playing against the best in the world is challenging enough without having to integrate new skills into a player’s established skillset.
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Opposing coaches can exploit his lack of pivoting ability, or physicality avoidance – almost to the point of intimidation in certain situations. Forwards can start wide and cut in sharply, where his pivoting is relatively poor. Gardiner is a much better option when he isn’t the prime target, instead in a support role capable of transitioning with ease to push the play up ice. His greatest gift is in the offensive ability and if he’s not assisting in generating shots and chances, he is questionably effective.
Regularly scolded for notable mistakes, the consistently bad optics – even if overblown due to familiarity – made him the whipping boy as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Coming off a back injury that cost him 20 games to end the 2018-19 season, and rendered fairly ineffective during a lackluster postseason, there were concerns going into the relationship.
The former Anaheim 1st rounder in 2008 (17th overall) hasn’t been able to shield himself from similar optics in Carolina. Exploring his effectiveness using EvolvingHockey.com he’s ranked with the lowest WAR in the league. WAR is an acronym for ‘Wins Above Replacement’, measuring the value of a replacement player in that spot. In Gardiner’s case, having the lowest WAR in the league is a concern, indicating that any player in the league can step into his position and perform better. That previous link was dated February 1 and it’s still true a few days later going into the game against St. Louis on Tuesday night.
And part of that hit on WAR constitutes defensive and offensive elements. Using data from Natural Stat Trick, there’s a noticeable downturn in 5v5 production offensively, but also in individual scoring chance creation. The 1.38 individual scoring chances per 60 is a career low, with an indication of a downward linear trend overall, while individual shot attempts (iCF/60) fluctuate season over season as expected.
We can track Gardiner’s on-ice 10 game moving average for overall scoring chances and it’s base components – high, medium and low danger chances – to come up with the chart below. The uptick coincides with a partnering with Brett Pesce shortly after the midway point of the season. He’d partnered with Trevor van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury prior to that with some randomness in low danger chances, but fairly consistent range of medium and high danger chances until moved alongside Pesce.
There’s an increase in medium chances and slight addition from high danger areas. This is duplicated and shown in the measurement of expected goals versus actual goals scored. Plotted with a 10-game moving average, Carolina with Gardiner on the ice, was underperforming their expected goals until fairly recently.
Of course, the counter to the offensive element is the same criteria for scoring chances against. Shot attempts alone don’t provide enough defensive context, but even with limitations, we can still use this to analyze impact. With the uptick in offense from the chart above, came a substantial jump in scoring chances against. The jump is fueled by an elevated high danger chances against.
Pivoting to expected goals against, there’s a significant gap between the rate the Hurricanes are allowing goals against and their expected rate. While some of that can be related to goaltending, this is where the defensive lapses take on a bigger component and further drive a wedge into the fragile budding relationship.
There’s a reset moment here between the Hurricanes and Gardiner, likely over the off season where they’re able to assess his value in the market should they wish to pursue trading him.
A small part of me thinks that they may have already begun that process to see if there are any takers at the trade deadline. He still has three years left on his current contract. Could there be any suitors stepping up at the deadline?