When the Carolina Hurricanes locked up Jake Gardiner to a four-year deal worth north of $4-million per season in early September, some were wondering why the defender wasn't snapped up sooner. Gardiner was among the top defensemen in his free agent class and it seemed certain he was going to add tremendous value to an already excellent Hurricanes defense corps.
But Gardiner's has been lackluster throughout his tenure in Carolina, to say the least. Using Evolving-Hockey's goals-above replacement, Gardiner's minus-8.1 is miles behind Joel Edmundson's minus-4.3 for worst on the Hurricanes, with just P.K. Subban and his minus-9.7 trailing Gardiner among all defensemen. Gardiner has always been a high-risk, high-reward defender, but his play with the Toronto Maple Leafs during three playoff series against the Boston Bruins since 2013 exposed his defensive deficiencies. A lesser role in Carolina was supposed to take away some of the responsibility and allow Gardiner to flourish, but he's been lost in the shuffle.
And that makes him an interesting potential trade target with the deadline approaching.
Gardiner has a seven-team no-trade list, but that leaves open plenty of potential landing spots for a mid-sized defender who can run a power play and move the puck effectively. The Hurricanes have six picks in the first three rounds in 2020 so they could get aggressive to address needs at every position, and Gardiner has shown enough in his career to be a valuable trade chip if GM Don Waddell decides to move on five months after signing the rearguard. Could Gardiner be part of a package to add scoring depth? Are the Hurricanes focusing on retaining future assets while remaining a playoff threat? The next few days could get interesting in Caniac Nation.
Overall, the trade market is thin, but that opens opportunities for teams to make out like bandits if they take a flier on a player struggling with their current club, such as Gardiner. Here's a look at six other players who could prosper in a new environment:
Shayne Gostisbehere, D, 26 (Philadelphia Flyers – $4.5 million AAV)
It seems like eons ago Gostisbehere finished with 65 points as a third-year NHLer. But that was just two seasons ago, 2017-18. In the 114 games he's played since, Gostisbehere has 49 points and has even been a healthy scratch in Philadelphia this season. Gostisbehere has missed time with a knee injury, which hasn't at all helped his trade value. His $4.5-million cap hit for the next three season isn't pretty, but when he's at the top of his game, 'Ghost Bear' can still move the puck and produce. He has potential to be a steal as a second-pairing defenseman elsewhere.
Andreas Athanasiou, LW, 25 (Detroit Red Wings – $3 million AAV)
Despite 2018-19 being the first of now back-to-back lost seasons for Detroit, Athanasiou managed to put up a career-high 30 goals and 54 points and finished second in scoring for the Red Wings. But a mid-season injury has limited Athanasiou to just 45 games this campaign, and when he's been active, he hasn't been anywhere as productive on the lowest-scoring team in the league (125 goals in 62 games). A number of contending teams, such as the Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders, could use a player like Athanasiou – a skilled forward with blazing speed who can complement a team's existing middle-six core. Athanasiou is a pending restricted free agent, making acquiring him an attractive option for teams still in the hunt.
Jimmy Howard, G, 35 (Detroit Red Wings – $4 million AAV)
There's no one single reason for Detroit's struggles. The list is very, very long. But the aftermath of 25 consecutive seasons in the playoffs hasn't been pretty for one of the NHL's most accomplished franchises. It doesn't help when the team's apparent No. 1 goaltender, Howard, is playing the worst hockey of his career, either. Through 26 games, Howard has a 2-22-2 record and has zero victories since Oct. 29. A long-term absence due to a soft-tissue injury hasn't helped, but among 52 goalies with at least 20 games played this season, Jimmy Howard's .900 save percentage (51st), .741 high-danger save percentage (52nd) and minus-11.63 goals-saved above average (48th) at 5-on-5 makes him one of the worst goalies, statistically, in the league. Howard's not going to improve on a team that was largely hopeless before the season began, and at 35, his days are numbered, anyway. A team in the hunt that wants a veteran presence at backup could take a gamble on Howard, though, while asking the Red Wings to retain salary. Just don't expect much of a return if you're the Wings.
P.K. Subban, D, 30 (New Jersey Devils – $9 million AAV)
There was so much hope in New Jersey after the draft, with the Devils acquiring P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators one day after selecting Jack Hughes first overall in June. Subban's stay in New Jersey has been disastrous, though. He has recorded just five points in 19 games in 2020 and just 13 overall despite averaging 22:03 a night. His numbers across the board are down from his usual averages (including his Corsi percentage, which has dipped from his 52.1 career average to 47.7 this season). The issue with Subban is getting someone to take on his $9-million cap hit when he's on pace for a career-low 20 points. The Devils have projected cap space of $7.53 million, so they have the room to retain a large portion of Subban's salary if the deal makes sense. Subban still has some good hockey left in him and he could be a useful addition to a team in need of two-way help, but it won't come cheap.
Mikael Granlund, RW, 27 (Nashville Predators – $5.75 million AAV)
After consecutive 60-point seasons with the Minnesota Wild in 2016-17 and 2017-18 (and he was on pace to do it again prior to the deadline last season), Granlund has hit a wall in Nashville. With 25 points this season, Granlund is on pace for 36 by campaign's end, good for 12th on the Predators and the worst output of his career. Granlund has seven points in his past eight games, which has coincided with a promotion to the top line, but the Predators still need big upgrades up front. If a team is willing to overlook Granlund's struggles and take on his $5.75-million cap hit for the remainder of the season – he's a UFA this summer – maybe a turnaround could be in order.
Erik Gustafsson, D, 27 (Chicago Blackhawks – $1.2 million AAV)
Gustafsson's play this season has been a shell of what it was a year ago. After finishing with a surprising 60 points in his first full NHL season, Gustafsson is on pace to post 36 this time around and has found himself in the press box on occasion. Gustafsson is still a fixture of Chicago's top power-play unit and can still play big minutes, but the Blackhawks have a handful of young prospects who can fill his role without being defensive liabilities. His minuscule cap hit and pending UFA status makes Gustafsson an attractive option. And given his breakthrough season is looking like it was an aberration, Gustafsson's next contract shouldn't be an expensive one.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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