Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SPORTS
On the night of February 25th, 2015, I sat in the corner of the Wheat Sheaf at Bathurst and King, talking to hockey friends, desperately trying to brainstorm ways to get David Clarkson’s contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs off the books.
The best I could come up with was creating a branding partnership with a KHL team, and seeing him pull an Ilya Kovalchuk and coincidentally signing with that team. It was blatantly obvious and probably something that would piss off the NHL, but it was the closest the Leafs were going to get to getting rid of his deal with five and a half years remaining on it. I ended up just giving up on the brainstorm session and went back to my beer.
The next afternoon, David Clarkson was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, blowing the collective mind of the hockey world.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 26, 2015
The move interestingly was the idea of the Columbus Blue Jackets, but it was one that the Leafs couldn’t say no to, as it parachuted them away from what as, in essence, the worst contract ever signed in the National Hockey League.
After all, players were overpaid before the full season lockout, but that only mattered to the balance sheets, not the non-existent salary cap. Players were handed massive term in the years that followed, but compliance buyouts became a thing in 2013, absolving teams of their mistakes. Clarkson didn’t have these benefits; his deal spans across an entire, capped CBA. He had a no-movement clause that, in theory, meant he could pick his spots. His deal was filled with signing bonuses, so a buyout would give the Leafs next to no annual benefit.
They were locked in. Locked into a player who didn’t require analytics to be pointed out as a July 1st warning sign; basic stats showed a sporadic and never top-end scorer, and the eye test showed a player who was never the clear driver of his line. There was reason to believe that, in the right situation, Clarkson was a serviceable to good player that could be the icing on the cake to a loaded roster. He wasn’t completely useless, but he was far from great.
But Leafs management, who saw their team completely go against the odds to squeak into the playoffs on the back of inflated percentages, and will their way to overtime of Game 7 in a series against the Boston Bruins that most experts had losing in 4 or 5 games, worried more about the ten minute collapse to end the season than the 50+ games that led up to it, and saw a gaping hole in the team’s mental fibre. In hindsight, nonsense. To a lot of people at the time, still nonsense. To the people with the keys at the time? It was the way to go.
Toronto made sweeping moves for “mentally tough” players, also adding the likes of Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland while using their compliance buyouts on Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski, while walking away from Clarke MacArthur. They committed long term to Tyler Bozak, giving him a five-year deal that only began to make sense when the entire regime was fired and Bozak’s role was re-imagined by a new brass (and hey, I’ll gladly admit that it eventually went right, just for the wrong reasons). But the crown jewel was Clarkson, who recieved maximum term and over $5 million a year to play in the bottom six and on the powerplay.
It was a disaster. Much of the big-picture process wasn’t much better, but an immense amount of pressure was put on the 29-year-old, as he symbolized the “meaner” look of the team, and headlined an oft-requested return to local talent. Clarkson genuinely wanted little more in his career than to wear the Blue and White jersey that he had always dreamed of, and when the hype came in, he set out to prove himself.
That was a mountain he’d never, ever be able to reach the peak of. The bar was set too high; the idea that a player with one 35 point season under his belt was going to become Toronto’s new top-end power forward who scored all the goals, threw all the hits, and won all the fights was nuts. But he tried; first buying into the latter point and earning himself a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in a pre-season game, and he did whatever he could on the ice to be more than just a net-front specialist. To the surprise of nobody who regularly watched him, he couldn’t keep up, especially in a dump and chase system, and he didn’t have the raw talent to get himself out of trouble when he tried to be an individualist.
It’s hard to say it was ever his fault. He took an insane offer to live out his childhood dream, and when the job description changed, he was so happy to be here that he did his best to meet him. But he was underqualified for the job, and it led to a season where he set a career low in goals and points, completely neutered his powerplay unit, didn’t really impose as much as hoped on the fisticuffs end, and slowly became a villain in Toronto; not so much for what he was, but because he wasn’t what people had made up in their heads. It was a real shame to see, given his desire to make everybody happy, and the positive effort he was making off the ice in terms of community work.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 21, 2014
Meanwhile, Columbus was in their own sticky situation. They signed Nathan Horton to a nearly identical contact in the same summer, though the situation was a bit different. Horton, who was undoubtedly the better player at the time, signed a deal wasn’t buyout proof, and it also wasn’t insured in the event of injury. Neither side thought through to that end, because they were elated to have each other. There was talk that the reason that Horton chose to wear #8 in Columbus was because it resemembled the infinity symbol, and he was that happy to have a long-term home.
But degenerative back problems hit him, and they hit him hard. The Blue Jackets, typically closer to a budget team, found themselves paying $5.3 million US to a sunk asset, thanks to the lack of insurance. They figured it would make sense to at least get a player who could play in his place, and Clarkson was the most logical option. They were prepared to go to the Los Angeles Kings to make the same offer for Mike Richards if Dave Nonis said no, but with a golden ticket out of his biggest mistake handed to him, there was no way that even the polarizing previous Leafs GM would say no.
Two years on, here’s what we learned:
- In a market like this, it makes no sense to put the weight of a season’s shoulders on one guy. Even if Clarkson wasn’t the “Franchise Player”, he was pointed to as the player who would lead the way to the next level at a time when it wasn’t even certain if they deserved to be at the one they were already at. Today’s Leafs do a spectacular job with this; Auston Matthews, has been given public votes of confidence as a great player, but everybody in the front office and coaching staff has been quick to make sure that he, nor any other player, doesn’t become “bigger than the team” to the media nad the fanbase. The group is sold as a sum of all parts with limited pressure handed to them and can focus on growth with limited pressure; a huge asset in this market.
- This move put to rest the common-held public opinion that Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment were penny pinchers who were okay with having a bad team as long as it benefitted the bottom line. Granted, it was a dumb myth anyway, given that the Leafs had continuously been a cap-ceiling team with a high paid front office, which was similar to the other sports clubs in the corporate umbrella. Committing over $30 million in real money to having a guy sit at home instead of counting to the salary cap proved the team would colour beyond the lines if they felt it would help the team win, and confirmed that the issues of old were closer to incompetence rather than penny-pinching.
- Putting huge dollar amounts and long terms on complimentary players is never a great idea, especially come unrestricted free agency. A player who gets max term on July 1st is guaranteed to be well past prime by the time it’s done, and will often be on the decline from their within months of signing, let alone years. Toronto has mostly stuck to the short term as far as free agency since, with Matt Martin (who took half the salary, nearly half the term, and was two years younger) and the attempted pitch to Steven Stamkos (a bonafide superstar at a few years younger than the average UFA) being the only known exemptions to that rule since.
Today, it looks like neither player will ever play again. As it turns out, Clarkson was going down the same path as Horton with his back, and ended up playing just 26 games for the Blue Jackets and is starting to transition to life after the NHL as we speak. That was a bit of a disappointment to them, but also works out for them in the long run; his contract, unlike Horton’s, is insured, and they can put him on LTIR to shed cap space while costing a fraction of the actual dollar figure to the team that their previous player would have.
Ultimately, it’s a deal that worked out for both sides. Columbus got a little bit more hockey out of their investment before saving a bunch of real-world money, Horton’s remaining ties to the league got moved a bit closer to home, and the Leafs and Clarkson got to move on from a mutual mess way quicker than anticipated. Today, knowing what the Leafs have learned and what they’ve become, it’s a bit easier to look back at how things unfolded with a bit more of a level head about the situation, but it’ll be hard to top the collective outburst and shock that came when the trade broke.