The hopes of some and the fears of others were put to rest on Friday, as former Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner signed a four-year, $16.2 Million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. The deal was for the same AAV($4.05 Million) that the 29-year-old signed with Toronto in 2014, but after over two months as an unrestricted free agent, Gardiner took the offer with the most term over a number of clubs made shorter-term offers.
There continued to be speculation that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas had interest in bringing Gardiner back and that he was amenable to a return to Toronto, but the Leafs current salary cap dilemma and the unsigned status of Mitch Marner made that virtually impossible.
In truth, the die was cast for Gardiner’s exodus last January when the Leafs dealt with Los Angeles for Cup winner Jake Muzzin and was etched in stone with the swap of Nikita Zaitsev for Cody Ceci.
The 30-year-old Muzzin plays the same side as Gardiner, is a more complete two-way defender and is under contract through this season, which offered Dubas cost certainty in a year where Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson were due new contracts.
Critics after the Gardiner signing were quick to point out that Ceci will make $450,000 more this season, but forgot that taking Ceci back was the cost of clearing the remaining five years of Nikita Zaitsev’s contract.
Toronto will likely try to get Muzzin re-signed before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next July after giving up good prospects in Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi and their 2019 first round pick for him. Gardiner’s lower-than-expected salary is something that could not be anticipated by the Leafs, as most observers believed he would get as much term and salary as Tyler Myers got from Vancouver, but the club’s blueline should be much better this season with righties Ceci and Tyson Barrie joining Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Travis Dermott.
The Maple Leafs rookies made an impressive showing at the Prospects Challenge in Traverse City, MI. On Friday, the Leafs defeated St. Louis 6-2, with 2019 top pick Nick Robertson tallying twice and Finnish free agent Teemu Kivihalme scoring a goal.
Kivihalme, 24, played a pair of seasons with Karpat in the SM-Liiga and may be in the mix for one of the Leafs bottom pairing spots at training camp with Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur, Justin Holl, Jordan Schmaltz and youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin.
Toronto won their second game of the weekend 6-3 over Chicago, with Robertson scoring again and Justin Brazeau adding a pair.
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