Although time will tell, being away from the Toronto Maple Leafs “fishbowl” -- James Reimer’s word -- may be a good thing for Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jake Gardiner.
Gardiner loved playing for the Leafs the past eight seasons. Had things worked out financially for the Leafs, he might still be in Toronto. But he had to move on and eventually decided the Canes’ four-year, $16.2 million free-agent offer was the best for him and his family.
“I want to win a Stanley Cup and I thought this was my best chance to do it,” Gardiner said in a recent media interview.
In Toronto, where the Leafs believe they’re building a Cup contender, a player’s every move is highly scrutinized and widely critiqued by fans and media. Good play is applauded, less-than-good play can be excoriated. Try that for eight years running.
Reimer was once the Maple Leafs’ goalie and Gardiner’s Toronto teammate until being traded to San Jose during the 2015-16 season. He spent the past three seasons with the Florida Panthers before a trade to the Canes in June.
“I’ve been removed from the fishbowl but this will be his first taste of it,” Reimer said Tuesday in an N&O interview. “It’s interesting. When you step away from the fishbowl you realize for the first time in a long time you’re just playing hockey. Toronto obviously is a great place to play, great fans, great city, but there’s so much extra going on that you don’t really realize until you come to a smaller market that you’re just playing hockey again.
“You’re going out with your buddies and just playing hockey. It’s kind of like going back to the roots of it. Just having fun.”
A late addition
Gardiner, 29, was a late free-agent addition to the Hurricanes, signed on Sept. 6. One media report in Canada said he declined a three-year offer from the Montreal Canadiens with an annual average value of $5.25 million to sign with the Canes.
“I don’t want to say too much about it but we just felt Carolina was the best fit,” Gardiner said.
The signing had a ripple effect. The Canes have since parted ways with veteran defenseman Justin Faulk, trading the former NHL All-Star to the St. Louis Blues.
The Canes did receive defenseman Joel Edmundson in return, a player Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said will replace Faulk’s grittiness. And the Canes’ defensive group was ranked first in an ESPN hockey rating this week, ESPN calling Gardiner the “perfect fit.”
Faulk’s big shot will be missed on the power play. But Brind’Amour believes Gardiner’s puck-handling and passing ability at the point potentially could make the power play smoother, more dangerous and potent.
“That’s a big reason we got him,” Brind’Amour said.
Gardiner was on a power-play unit Wednesday with Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter and rookie forward Martin Necas.
“It’s a matter of getting used to each other and having chemistry and knowing certain tendencies such as what Aho is going to do, and vice versa,” Gardiner said in an N&O interview Tuesday. “Puck movement is huge.”
Back issue keeps Gardiner out
The Canes were 20th in the NHL on the power play last season at 17.8 percent (the Leafs were eighth at 21.8 percent). All too often there were zone-entry problems, too many passes and not enough good shots, and the Canes weren’t any better in their six preseason games this year as Brind’Amour took a look at different combinations.
It didn’t help that Gardiner missed a chunk of the preseason. After dealing with a back issue last season that eventually kept him out the month of March, Gardiner came into Canes camp saying he was fully healed. His absence, he said Monday, wasn’t the back flaring up again.
“Just some tightness in my hips,” he said. “We thought there’s no reason to risk getting hurt right now and we’d rather be ready for the season. I’m feeling good.”
Gardiner returned to practice Tuesday and appears good to go. Last season wasn’t what he wanted -- missing 20 games, having the season end with a Game 7 loss, for a second straight year, to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
A native of Minnetonka, Minn., born on the Fourth of July in 1990, Gardiner has played for Team USA in the World Championship and won a gold medal with the U.S. team in the 2010 World Junior Championship. He was a part of four playoff teams in Toronto and has 551 games of NHL regular-season experience.
There were good times and bad in Toronto for Gardiner, but Reimer has seen him at his best and has a good sense of what Gardiner can bring to the Canes.
“Every game he’s buzzing,” Reimer said. “His skating is elite. He can drive the play, find guys, a great passer. Offensively and on the power play he’s got a way of getting his shots through. He sees the ice well. And defensively he brings it, too.
“He works his butt off. He’ll be great for us. He brings it every day.”
Carolina Hurricanes defensemen
With number, name, birthplace, age, height, weight
19 Dougie Hamilton
Toronto, Canada, 26, 6-6, 229
The Canes’ highest-paid D-man, Hamilton had a career-high 18 goals in his first Canes season in 2018-19. Will anchor a power-play unit and be counted on to be aggressively effective. Cap hit: $5.75 million.
74 Jaccob Slavin
Denver, Colo., 25, 6-3, 207
Named an alternate captain for this season, he again will join Hamilton on the Canes’ top D pairing. Has been emerging as one of the NHL’s better defensemen and a first NHL All-Star selection is overdue. Cap hit: $5.3 million.
51 Jake Gardiner
Minnetonka, Minn., 29, 6-2, 203
Gardiner says the Canes last season were a “hard team to play against” and he wants to keep it that way. Being counted on to improve a power play that needs help. Cap hit: $4.05 million.
22 Brett Pesce
Tarrytown, N.Y., 6-3, 206
Pesce’s fourth NHL season was his best. He had career highs in goals (7), assists (22) and points (29), and his plus-35 rating led the team in plus/minus. The question now: can he take that next step in year five? Cap hit: $4.025 million.
6 Joel Edmundson
Brandon, Manitoba, 26, 6-4, 215
Won a Stanley Cup ring with the St. Louis Blues last season. Traded to the Canes in the Justin Faulk deal, he’s a rugged stay-at-home type of D-man and strong penalty killer. Cap hit: $3.1 million.
4 Haydn Fleury
Carlyle, Saskatchewan, Canada, 6-3, 208
The former first-round draft pick signed a one-year, one-way contract in the offseason and will be in the lineup with Trevor van Riemsdyk still recovering from surgery. Has played 87 games for the Canes the past two years. Cap hit: $850,000.
* 57 Trevor van Riemsdyk
Middletown, N.J., 28, 6-2, 198
A valuable member of the Canes’ playoff team last season, he injured a shoulder during the playoffs that required surgery and was not cleared for contact in training camp. Unsung but effective, he’ll return early in the regular season. Cap hit: $2.3 million.
* - Non-roster injured reserve.
Salary source: CapFriendly.com