The David Clarkson trade, two years on

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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:

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  • 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.

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  • tealeaves

    Even if the leafs didn’t trade Clarkson it would have worked out the same as with Horton being both players are on LTIR. Clarkson would be on Robidas Island with Lupul now due to his injuries. Though with insurance (money MLSE doesn’t need) Clarkson would be a little easier to offload but for the leafs using his LTIR space is perfectly fine

      • FlareKnight

        At the time it was a different situation. But at this point in time it would be the same situation. Instead of Horton living on that island it would be Clarkson. Still it was a good trade to make at the time and did free up salary during the time Clarkson was still healthy and playing.

        • Kanuunankuula

          And we can’t be sure he would’ve been injured in Tor. It turned out the same now, we can’t be sure it would have been the same without the trade.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    I liked Clarkson. The fact that the Leafs made a huge mistake with the contract is 100% on Leaf’s management at the time. If teams truly wish to be a cup contender it is very likely they will need to add an established, final piece, through a trade or free agency. All of those types of players will come at a high salary and term. None of them will be really worth the money. Some of them will even be a bust. This is where NHL teams need to have the best scouting money can buy.

  • Capt.jay

    Off topic. Most people think our defense is soft. Would anyone be upset if we sign shattikirk in the summer and paired him with Zeitsev and then traded either Reilly or Gardiner for a more rounded young defenseman with size and sand paper?

    shattenkirk. Zeitsev
    Really/Gardiner. Trade
    Carrick. Hunwick/polack

    Thoughts? We have lots of cap space to find servicable replacements for Polak/Hunwick if needed.

    • Kanuunankuula

      Shattenkirk is a RHD. It’s really wasteful to pair to RHD together, not to mention it’s pretty proven playing on your offside on D weakens possession results.

      • Capt.jay

        So then move him to a different partner. The gist of my point is to sign him for free and then trade one of Reilly or Gardiner for a more servicable Dman. They seem to be two peas in a pod and I think we only need one of them.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Most think we have only 3 top four defencemen. So if you plan to sign in the summer Shattenkirk that would make 4. Trading Rielly or Gardiner would bring you back to three.

      • Capt.jay

        When I said trade either Reilly or Gardiner did you think I meant for a 5/6 Dman? Trade one of them for another top four guy that plays a more rounded and physical game. If you scroll up you’ll see where I have the guy we traded for slotted on the second pairing. I think Shattenkirk, Reilly/Gardiner, Zeitsev, and the guy we trade for makes 4.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          Ok I see what you meant now. By trading Rielly or Gardiner for a better more rounded D-man the Leafs would have to sweeten the pot with a really good prospect or one of our rookies, otherwise no one would consider trading a better D-man to us.
          “Discussions between the Blues and another club(Tampa I think) fell apart about six
          weeks ago on a trade that would have given Shattenkirk a seven-year, $42
          million contract ($6 million AAV), as first reported by TSN’s Bob
          McKenzie. League sources have independently confirmed that Shattenkirk,
          who is 28 and a pending unrestricted free agent, turned down the offer.

          So he is looking for over $6 million a year for 7 years.

          The Blues are now believed to be shopping Shattenkirk as a “rental” player, An extension elsewhere would have allowed the Blues to maximize his trade value.

          • Capt.jay

            The hard part about Shattenkirk down the road will be his contact. Looks like he wants big dough and long term. I wouldn’t mind doing that but not in a trade, only as a UFA. As for Reilly or Gardiner I would prefer trading Gardiner because of age. We’re probably going to lose JVR to UFA cause he’ll want big money so I wonder what type of Dman a Gardiner and JVR trade could fetch.

            I’m not saying do it, I’m just making conversation. It would interesting to see though.

          • LukeDaDrifter

            Further to Shattenkirk……

            According to Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, landing Shattenkirk will cost a team “a high-end prospect, a first-round pick and another piece.”

            ARIZ also had permission to talk to Shattenkirk at one point early this season, but a contract could not be worked out.

            Lou is not inclined to give out those long term contracts. It looks like he has not given any no movement clauses either.

            One would think there would be a good market for Gardiner and JVR. It is more likely to see a forward for a D-man in my opinion. Unless you are talking blockbuster.

  • FlareKnight

    The one thing I take away from this is how unfortunate Clarkson’s situation ended up being. I mean obviously he’ll get by just fine thanks to that insane contract. But it certainly sucks for the guy that his career ended up like this. Just wanted to play for his hometown team and help them be better. And instead things just become toxic and at the end of it all he ends up unable to play at all.

    In the end it was an important trade. It was a pure gift from Columbus and also a change of direction. That contract was just a bad idea from every angle. It said it all when Clarkson was the top ranked UFA forward. It was a dry to the bone free agency year and teams hadn’t learned yet to avoid making a bad signing like that.

    Things are so much brighter for the Leafs now than 2 years ago. And even brighter than the years before that. Just plain glad that we have the guys we have now. That we don’t need to think about bringing in anyone who just grew up in Ontario. We’ve got our young stars and as the Leafs improve guys will show up here that we want and for the right price.