Dreger: Gardiner contract could top $7 million annually

Jake Gardiner will have a critical career choice to make as the season progresses.

The 28-year-old defenseman is in the final year of his contract, and will no doubt have to accept less money on an extension with the Leafs - if he wants to go that route - than he could get on the open market.

“If he has another year like he has last year point-wise with a career-best 52 - and there’s no reason to think that he can’t, provided he stays healthy, and the power play should click, and everything that he’s a part of in that Top 4 should work in his favor - he’s going to command high 6s, maybe low 7s,” guessed Darren Dreger during a Thursday afternoon Leafs Lunch segment on Toronto’s TSN 1050. “That seems to be the target. Kevin Shattenkirk got four years at 6.65. He was somewhat maligned going into free agency as to whether or not he was even a legit Top 4. I took a lot of heat for suggesting that a lot of teams look at as a 5 guy, a third-pairing.

“So Jake Gardiner - again, he has to put up the numbers again. No reason to think that he won’t. Let’s assume - which is a large assumption - Erik Karlsson is going to sign with the San Jose Sharks. Now you’ve got a captivated audience on top of that. So he could be higher than $7 million per.”

Gardiner’s current cap hit is $4.05 million, so a contract that tops $7 million annually would be quite a raise for the defenseman.

Can the Leafs actually afford to allocate that much salary cap to him though?

“I don’t think so,” said Dreger. “That sounds matter of fact, but we’re not talking about the Nashville Predators’ blueline here. We’re still looking at a Toronto Maple Leafs blueline that needs further attention. They’ve got some good pieces there. But they need an Ozhiganov or somebody like that - a Calle Rosen, who looked pretty good in training camp and through the preseason - to really step it up. Otherwise, start the trade rumors now.

“Or does Toronto approach a Jake Gardiner the same way they did the three or four free agents that walked out the door, simply using Jake Gardiner to go as deep as you can in the playoffs and take your chances after the trade deadline.”

Dreger was asked about the Leafs potentially trying to approach Gardiner to get him signed now, or if that was even a priority for the Leafs.

“Well, I don’t know it’s a priority, but you have to believe there is going to be some back and forth between the agent and Kyle Dubas in the months ahead. They’ve got enough invested in Jake Gardiner that they’re going to want to at least investigate his interest in avoiding free agency.

“And not that Pat Brisson is a free agent hunter, by any stretch, but this is the same guy that represents John Tavares, who left the only team he’s played for in the New York Islanders.

“To be frank, I’d be surprised if Jake Gardiner doesn’t go to free agency.”

Gardiner does not have trade protection written into his current contract.

Dreger mentioned on Wednesday’s edition of TSN’s Insider Trading that dialogue was expected to get underway between the Leafs and Gardiner’s camp in the next several weeks.

Contract-related info via CapFriendly