On Tuesday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs completed one of the more head-scratching and punch-line-heavy moves in recent history (or ever), re-acquiring famous flameout David Clarkson in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Clarkson’s contract was maybe the worst signed in franchise history, and one that helped to first introduce non-hardcores to the incredible complexities and permutations of the NHL’s salary cap structure. Now six summers later, Clarkson will belong once again to the Maple Leafs, likely until that contract mercifully expires at the end of the season — no longer to be manipulated by NHL general managers.
Exactly what it means for the Leafs will be detailed below, but at the very basic level, the Leafs are paying a very small sum, while parting with Garret Sparks, to acquire a fourth-round pick.
But in actuality this move is all about dancing around the salary cap, and the preservation of assets and resources as the Maple Leafs continue to work hard at satisfying Mitch Marner’s needs and the best interests of the organization.
Leafs all-in on LTIR
What initially dragged the Maple Leafs to the dance will be the same thing used to help escape the repercussions.
Reacquiring Clarkson, it drips with irony.
To erase the grave mistake made in free agency way back in 2013, the Leafs agreed to the lesser of two evils two years later, stepping up to front the bill on Nathan Horton’s uninsured contract. The intention, always, was to just stash him away on injured reserve and continue on with their rebuild. For many seasons the transactional process associated with storing Horton on LTIR for the Columbus Blue Jackets wouldn’t pose a threat to the Leafs. But as entry-level contracts have turned into big-money salaries, Clarkson’s initial extrication plan has indeed introduced a problem.
With salary cap space available, but not enough to earn Marner’s signature, unused money has backed the Leafs into a corner. Because teams only receive the difference in LTIR savings against available cap space, the Leafs were in a position to fail to seize maximum savings through the associated kickback.
Now that they have re-introduced the Clarkson contract to the payroll, Kyle Dubas and resident capologist Brandon Pridham have effectively plugged that available cap space and temporarily pushed the payroll beyond the upper limit. That means that once Clarkson and Horton, each of degenerative back issues, are shuffled to long-term injured reserve, the Leafs will re-introduce all of, if not most, of the $10.55 million in combined salaries to complete the roster.
In short, it’s imperative that teams are as close to the upper limit as possible in order to maximize LTIR savings. The Leafs would have otherwise wasted capital through Horton’s paper transaction. As a cap team they are certainly in no position to do that.
What it means for Marner
For Leafs fans, the initial fear was that while the buried money between Clarkson and Horton could combine to essentially meet Marner’s salary demands, it might prevent the dynamic winger from being in the lineup on opening night.
While the negotiation could still stretch into the season, the Clarkson acquisition could actually improve the chances that Marner signs before opening night. Under CBA rules, the Leafs can still spend beyond the upper limit before becoming cap compliant by triggering the switch to LTIR.
Further, by closely matching Marner’s projected salary with the money that will be buried with Clarkson and Horton, the Leafs have helped safeguard themselves from certain situations that could still come into play as the negotiation with the restricted free agent star continues. This includes the potential of Marner’s holdout lasting into the season and eventually settling for a salary-skewing pro-rated contract like the one William Nylander signed in the final minutes last winter.
Another shoe would have had to drop in order to accommodate the Marner contract. With Clarkson, that’s not necessarily the case.
Renaud Lavoie on SN590: Marner will likely miss training camp but my understanding is that Marner will be a Maple Leaf for a long time.— James (@Account4hockey) July 24, 2019
Leafs close the book on Sparks
Considering the cap benefits that Vegas received in the deal (extricating themselves from the LTIR process altogether), the fourth-round pick sent back to Toronto in return was more than enough compensation. But instead the Golden Knights received a potential back-up netminder in the deal as well, as the Leafs tacitly admitted to a mistake.
Sparks was handed the back-up goaltender job last summer over Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard, which turned out to be an unforced error on the part of Leafs management.
Trading Sparks takes him out of the picture completely, but fails to offer a solution to the positional need. It will be Michal Neuvirth competing on a professional tryout with limited veteran Michael Hutchinson for the No. 2 role with the Leafs, who still have their hands somewhat tied as they strive to find a solution for the role.
While it is incumbent on Dubas, Pridham and the entire management team to draw up plays for certain situations many moves in advance, this trade was completed for the sole purpose of freeing up the most amount of money possible in order to end the stalemate with Marner without sacrificing another major piece.
Should there be some associated flexibility, and another opportunity to improve the team, wonderful. But above all else, it’s paramount that teams protect their financial resources at all costs.
Strangely enough, inviting Clarkson back to the organization to serve out the seventh season on a contract that will go down as one of the worst in franchise history, it’s a move that helps them accomplish that.
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