When you’e watching Olli Maatta excel at the Chris Hudson trail technique behind Mikko Rantanen streaking to the net for his second of the night in January, you’re going to know the answer to this question more than you ever did.
When free agency started, Jake Gardiner was a no-go. We figured he would be too expensive and have to sign for too many years for what was only ok to good production. There were bigger fish (though he re-signed in San Jose), there were cheaper fits (the Hawks found them), and he didn’t seem to provide enough of what the Hawks needed, though some, for the expected investment.
But after the Hawks acquired Maatta and Calvin de Haan, which ups maybe only their professional experience and none of the mobility and skill problems, one has to ask if the Hawks wouldn’t have been better off waiting out the market on Gardiner.
That’s also completely unfair, because very few if any thought Gardiner would be left twisting in the wind. This isn’t baseball, where everyone now knows teams are just going to wait and wait and you can kind of set your price on the player you want and simply tap your foot and look at your watch until they accept it. Most business is done on July 1 (and before), and so if most teams expected Gardiner to sign on that day, it’s understandable.
Gardiner made $4M last year, and is probably still looking in the range of $6M or more to get pen to paper. That’s more than the Hawks have space for, though if they’d left Maatta alone they’d be right there. And Gardiner would come with something that Maatta or de Haan or really anyone on the roster right now cannot provide. That’s the first pass to the forwards, and the ability to open himself up to do so.
Gardiner has a 34-assist and 47-assist season to his name, and was on that pace again this past season but missed 20 games through injury. No, he’s not a top-pairing guy, but he has discernible skillset, which is more than we can say for Maatta. He’s been above the team rate in possession and expected-goals the last three years, and that was for some go-go Leafs teams. One would hope the Hawks would like to score lots of goals too.
Is it possible now? No, pretty much not. The Hawks would have to jettison Murphy on the blue line to make it work financially, and that would just be running place. Could they try and wheel Maatta out of town? Doesn’t seem like it’s in the plans, though you’ll be wishing it was soon enough.
Even if the market continued to drop on Gardiner, whatever spot you’d dream up for him probably should go to Boqvist with the cheaper rate, less years, better wheels, obviously more skill, even with the bigger questions. But hey, plans change, just as they did when the Hawks went with the impulse buy on Robin Lehner. But that was late in the day on July 1. Gardiner still wasn’t signed. Was that the call they should have made?
Again, we’ll lament this after trail-technique.