The Leafs lost the David Clarkson Trade

There are still a little more than three hours left before the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline ends. We’re waiting on blockbusters; will Erik Karlsson move? Will the Leafs buy or sell? Can I finally stop yelling about Mike Green? These are the pertinent questions as the top half of the hourglass empties.

But today is also an anniversary! Three years ago today, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded David Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Nathan Horton, one of the smartest decisions the team has made over the past few years.

Or was it?

The Clarkson trade was Toronto’s way of getting out of a mistake made a year and a half prior. Admittedly, that still feels mean to say; David Clarkson, for all intents and purposes, tried his absolute best to live up to the expectations given to him when he signed with the Blue and White. This was his childhood team, an organization he had planned on playing for well before he ever had his first conversation with management, and while he was with the team, he put in a full-on effort every time he stepped onto the ice (almost to a fault). But there’s a difference between being the player who accepts the payday from the place he wants and being the management team that offers it, and Clarkson’s 7 year, $36.75 million deal remains one of the single worst in NHL history. Toronto expected a player in his late 20’s to magically develop into a top-end power forward, despite just one 35+ point season to his name, and the experiment bombed spectacularly.

So they flexed their financial muscles and traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton. Horton was in a similarly rough situation, for seemingly different reasons: Columbus had much more reason to believe he’d be an impactful player for them, but degenerative back issues ended up ending his career the year prior. The Blue Jackets decided that they’d rather that money go to a player that could play minutes, rather than one who would sit at home and begin a new, post-hockey life.

So the trade was made. As the memes went, the Leafs managed to pull off the deal without retaining a cap hit, though they would retain a bunch of money.

A bunch of money. Horton was due about $27.5 million in real dollars left, even if he could be placed on Long Term Injured reserve and, as such, not make much of a salary cap impact on the team. Clarkson was owed about a million more, but at least was capable of playing a bottom-six shift along the way.

Thirteen months and 26 games later, David Clarkson’s career was also done. Incredibly, it was done in the same way: a degenerative lower back problem almost identical to Horton’s. Crazy, right?

Clarkson came to the Blue Jackets in a 2015 trade deadline deal that sent Nathan Horton to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now both players are likely finished with their careers because of the same ailment: degeneration of the lower spine. Clarkson played through a stiff back for years, both with the Devils and Leafs.

“It would get stiff, but I knew ways to loosen it up so I could play,” he said.

As an aside: Clarkson had been having back issues since New Jersey. The Leafs presumably had people capable of doing a physical, or at least asking around, when they offered him seven years but didn’t think enough of it at the time. Whether they could’ve foreseen it spiralling into what it became is obviously a different question altogether, but that’s a pretty big oversight on a seven-year commitment. Even if he plays through the deal, giving max term to a player who is already playing through a chronic ailment seems like a situation you’d like to avoid.

Regardless; since they both had the same outcomes, and it seems like there was a good bet towards that happening, the value game has shifted. Today, they’re both ~$5.3 million LTIR blocks with chronic lower-back ailments. But there’s a difference here: raw money. Clarkson’s contract is insured, which typically means that the team is paying (previously Columbus, now Las Vegas) just 20% of his real dollars. Horton’s deal wasn’t insured, so what’s the difference?

Year David Clarkson Nathan Horton Net
2014/15 $215,000.00 $1,290,000.00 -$1,075,000.00
2015/16 $1,100,000.00 $6,000,000.00 -$4,900,000.00
2016/17 $1,400,000.00 $6,000,000.00 -$4,600,000.00
2017/18 $1,400,000.00 $6,000,000.00 -$4,600,000.00
2018/19 $950,000.00 $4,500,000.00 -$3,550,000.00
2019/20 $650,000.00 $3,600,000.00 -$2,950,000.00
Total $5,715,000.00 $27,390,000.00 -$21,675,000.00

That’s.. a lot of money. $22 million is a lot of money to swallow to walk away from a mistake. Obviously, Leafs ownership has a bottomless pit of money, but there’s a difference between making a calculated move to stretch the boundaries of the cap, and losing $22 million through not waiting out the clock. Even if you don’t use that with the Leafs, that’s money that could have been spent in other parts of the organization, like one of the many other Bell/Rogers owned sports teams (the Raptors, TFC, Marlies, Argos, and halfway to the Blue Jays all come to mind), or on non-roster staff, or on improving the Air Canada Centre (the Scotiabank Arena sponsorship should alleviate that, though). If Toronto were a smaller market team like an Arizona or Carolina, throwing nearly $4 million US a year into a pit without actually gaining anything out of it would be seen as a monumental disaster.

Ultimately, I don’t think Toronto loses too much sleep on this one. Philosophically, moving Clarkson felt like a start of a page-turning for the organization, initiating the Shanaplan’s exile of core’s past that was eventually followed by the trades of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and a similar LTIR burial of Joffrey Lupul that comes off the books this summer. If you ask them whether or not they’d do it again, they probably would. I would too; even if you were pretty sure that Clarkson’s back was on the way out, there wasn’t a guarantee of that.

Regardless, though, they still lost the deal in the end. It’s a loss you can laugh about as a fan, that has no real consequence on the roster, but they still lost. No one is mad, and no one should be mad, but once you look at the big picture, it is a little funny how it all ended up working out.

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