One of the best moves Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas made this past season was the acquisition of veteran defenseman Mark Giordano.
The 38-year-old was off the competitive radar as captain of the expansion Seattle Kraken for much of the season, but it was well-known the Leafs had interest in him to solidify their top-six defense group, and Dubas dealt a pair of second-round picks and a third-rounder to Seattle at the trade deadline to confirm that interest.
Giordano isn’t at the peak he was at when he won the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top blueliner in 2019, but in 20 games with the Leafs after the trade, he posted 10 assists and 12 points while playing defensively-responsible hockey in Toronto’s own zone. Clearly, he fit in well in Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe’s system, but as the season wound down, there was speculation as to whether he would return to the Leafs after becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. Giordano’s salary (split between the Kraken and Leafs to make it work under Toronto’s salary cap limitations) was $6.75 million, and if he wanted to earn anywhere near that amount in 2022-23, it wasn’t going to be in Toronto, his hometown.
But a very odd, and rare thing happened on Sunday afternoon. The Leafs sent out a press release revealing that Giordano was indeed coming back to the organization next year – the next two years, actually – at the incredible, bargain-basement salary of $800,000 per season. There’s no question Giordano could’ve made much more money in another market, but he accepted a massive pay cut not only to stay with the Leafs, but to give them every advantage possible that they have with their cap space.
Now, Toronto has a top-four defense unit that includes Giordano, top-pair cornerstone Morgan Rielly, and veterans T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin. The latter’s injury issues and overall slip in performance in 2021-22 have caused some to speculate Dubas will trade him, but Muzzin has two seasons left at a $5.625-million cap hit, and there aren’t going to be teams lining up to trade for a guy making that amount of money who also has concussion issues.
That means Dubas almost assuredly will be trading much-maligned D-man Justin Holl, who will be entering his final season at $2-million before becoming a UFA in the summer of 2023. That’s a luxury the Leafs can’t afford, even with Giordano’s reduced salary. Holl’s game has been hyper-analyzed and picked apart, and there’s no question he has flaws that aren’t going to be fixable given that he’s now 30 years old. For his own sake and for the Leafs’ sake, Holl needs a new beginning with another franchise.
And that would mean, barring some trade that sends one of them out and brings in a rugged, talented winger to replace the very-probably-departing, soon-to-be UFA Ilya Mikheyev, young D-men Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will fit in as the final two members of the Leafs’ top-six defense crew. Both Liljegren and Sandin had moments where they played very well this year, they are, respectively, only 22 and 23 years old. They still have the time and opportunity to grow their games.
Which is where Giordano comes in again. He worked frequently with Liljegren this season, and his high panic threshold rubbed off on the young Swede. With Sandin presumably fully healthy next season, he too will benefit from Giordano’s smarts and the everyday example he sets as one of the leaders in Toronto’s dressing room.
And all this, for $800,000 per year? Giordano couldn’t have had a better impact on Toronto’s present and future. With the money he’s saved because of Giordano’s team-first mentality and generosity, Dubas now has a much better shot at keeping UFA starting goalie Jack Campbell. He’s given management cap flexibility most people believed wasn’t possible this summer.
If you’re a Leafs fan who didn’t give Giordano a standing ovation in his short time as a Leaf this season, you’d better be standing up and clapping your hands for him next year. He has immensely helped Toronto’s fortunes on the ice, and now, off of it.