In July 2013, then-Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis said of the contract he gave his big signing, David Clarkson: “I’m not worried about years six and seven”. Nonis is gone, but as it turns out, the Leafs will be worrying – two times over, about year seven, as the team has acquired his contract while pulling in an asset for backup goaltender Garret Sparks.
Given the Leafs’ cap crunch, and that Mitch Marner remains unsigned, it might seem a little absurd that they would be taking back a $5.25 million contract – especially one that is considered by many to be the worst in franchise history, and a miracle to have escaped from (sort of) to begin with. But let’s touch on a few quick points, to settle the confusion.
Toronto’s Cursed LTIR Blessing
For those of you who didn’t click that “sort of”, here’s a quick refresher on how the Leafs got out of the Clarkson deal to begin with: In early 2015, the team, realizing just how bad of a mistake they had made with his contract, took advantage of a unique proposal given to them by the Blue Jackets.
Columbus had signed Nathan Horton to a contract with very similar terms, except they didn’t insure his deal against injury. This meant that when Horton’s career ended due to a degenerative back issue, the lower-budget Blue Jackets were stuck paying over $5 million per year in cash to a player who couldn’t play, instead of the insurance company footing 80% of the bill. They felt that a struggling player at the same price was better than an unusable body. Toronto accepted the deal, shedding a roster spot and having the ability to put Horton on Long-Term Injured Reserve, should they need to.
Up until now, things have unravelled in a pretty funny way. Toronto has never needed to activate Horton’s LTIR in-season, and Clarkson ended up with the same degenerative injury – meaning that they could’ve saved over $20 million in real dollars by waiting a few more months for Clarkson’s nagging pains to get the best of him. This season was expected to be the first that Toronto would have to use Horton’s injury to get under the cap, and now they have both.
To give a simplified explanation on how LTIR works – it’s not as simple as a floating $0 cap hit on the player. In essence, you’re using your injured players to buy down cap space at the time that they’re placed on it.
Toronto was sitting at roughly $70.5 million in committed roster salaries without Marner signed, meaning that he would have to sign for under $7 million to avoid LTIR being used going into opening night. So, knowing that the team was going to be there anyway, Toronto was in a unique position to take on another LTIR cap dump in exchange for an asset.
The Leafs also have a slight, unlikely to be used benefit in having that second injured player on the cap. Should Marner’s negotiations bleed into the season, having Clarkson on the roster will allow them to build a bigger buffer to slot him in later. Toronto would essentially build a barebones opening day roster that includes Clarkson and Horton as a part of it to get as close to the ceiling as possible, place both of them on LTIR to get that buy-back, and then repopulate the team with more room to sign Marner than if they just did this with Horton.
Vegas, on the other hand, were in a position where the team would have been able to exceed the cap with Clarkson’s LTIR, but shedding his contract would be enough to get them under it cleanly with a full roster (Nikita Gusev notwithstanding). This wasn’t quite a situation where the Golden Knights were desperate to get rid of that deal, but doing so gave them a little bit of a boost – hence the sweetener not being as massive as we’ve seen in some other cap dump deals. Vegas are effectively shedding $1 million in cap space while Toronto is gaining $0 – it’s hardly a case of $5.3 in, $5.3 out.
A Potentially Forced Hand
So this brings us to the meat of this trade that the ability to take on Clarkson, his $5.2 million in cap hit, and ~$1 million in real dollars facilitated, with the team sending Garret Sparks to Vegas in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
From a pure value perspective, it seems about right; non-starting goaltenders rarely get moved for more than a mid-late round pick, and Sparks, as many Leafs fans will tell you, did not live up to his historic 2017/18 AHL season with his performance as the big club’s backup last year.
In 20 games last year, the 26-year-old netminder posted an 8-9-1 record, attached to a 0.902 save percentage and 3.15 goals against average. The process to get there was complicated, too – a bloodbath of a debate about who should get the backup job in the preseason, two other goaltenders lost to waivers to make it happen, a concussion, and some unfortunate appearances started the proverbial fire, which was further stoked by Sparks calling out his team’s need to show more emotion on the ice, a lack of delivery on his own end, and what looked a lot like an exiling at the end of the season so he could “work on his game”.
I’d imagine that his outspokenness led to that exile more than his play, because while his play wasn’t fantastic, it wasn’t terrible for a first-full-year goaltender, particularly with league-wide save percentages dipping.
Once you pull apart the numbers, it wasn’t a terrible year. For $750,000, Sparks posted an average regular and 5-on-5 save percentage for a backup, an average PK save percentage compared to the whole league, and a top-third high-danger save percentage – oddly, only really bombing on low danger shots that you’d expect most goalies to have. It certainly wasn’t bad enough to feel strong emotions about one way or another, and didn’t cost them anything in the standings.
But we know that Mike Babcock’s lack of patience with attitudes that don’t mesh with his is low, and his lenience with backup goaltenders is even lower – the combination of Sparks’ outspokenness and statistical mediocrity likely dug his proverbial grave. To add some urgency to the management side, the team was able to retain 2018/19 Marlies starter Michael Hutchinson at an even lower NHL cap hit than Sparks’ ($700,000 – even $50,000 matters this year!), and have also signed Michal Neuvirth to a PTO as a fallback.
Realistically, I’d imagine this was a case of Babcock not wanting Sparks back, and management not seeing much value in fighting that specific war, given that it’s a pretty low-leverage roster spot.
So Is This Good?
Honestly, it’s hard to say.
I know I’m happy for Sparks specifically, in the sense that he gets to fight Malcolm Subban for the backup role in training camp, and if it doesn’t work out, his one-way contract and non-impressive stats in the show next year might be enough to get him to clear waivers – which would put him close to his hometown with the Chicago Wolves.
I can’t help but feel like the Leafs don’t particularly get better here. Sparks has been an easy whipping boy, but he’s still the youngest of their viable options, and still had promising aspects to his game – I can’t help but feel that he’s still got a shot in the NHL, and it would have been nice to see him do it here. I don’t think a fourth-round pick really moves the needle compared to the potential upside of him rebounding.
With that said, the pressures of the cap, the scrutiny of the public, and the skepticism of the coach made this a likely avenue, so it’s about as sensible of a move as any. Taking advantage of that Clarkson contract for a second, convoluted way is admittedly pretty hilarious and it’s a shrewd way to use unclaimable cap space. The insurance if Marner spills into the season helps too.
It’s one of those moves that feels practically smart, but not quite right all the same. Odds are, though, that it’ll have little consequence on the grand scheme of things, so perhaps the best plan is to enjoy the absurdity for what it is.