On Thursday, the Toronto Maple Leafs did something which seemed impossible: They traded away David Clarkson, the owner of perhaps the worst contract in the NHL.
Even more incredibly, even as the Leafs managed a clear win so did the team on the other end of the trade.
Before getting to the accolades that Toronto’s management richly deserves, we should explain that Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t a total dunce. He had a good reason for making this deal.
Unlike the Leafs, the Blue Jackets have to worry not only about the NHL salary cap but also the actual amount of dollars paid out to players. Nathan Horton has five years left on his contract after this one, and his $5.3 million cap hit is less important than the fact that he has more than $25 million in salary still owed him, per NHLNumbers.com.
As TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports, Horton’s contract wasn’t insured, which means that a small-market Columbus team has to spend a significant portion of its annual budget on a player with a degenerative back condition who isn’t likely to play for it any time soon.
As the Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline put it in November, Horton “is stuck in a living hell.” In a heartbreaking interview, Horton described himself as being “like a 75-year-old man” and being unable to even sleep or play with his kids, let alone play hockey.
“I don’t want to have surgery, because of what that means,” Horton told Portzline. “I don’t want to live with this pain, but I don’t want to make that decision. It’s hard for me to say that, at 29 years old, I’m done. I mean, really? Done at 29?”
It’s a brutal situation for the player and an awfully hard one for the team too, which could not afford to spend that kind of money on a player not even on its roster. But it did create an opportunity for someone, and the Leafs were the first club both smart enough to see it and rich enough to make it work.
Unlike Columbus, Toronto is rich enough that paying Horton not to play won’t be a massive strain on the bottom line. The Leafs’ problem is the salary cap, and Clarkson’s $5.25 million cap hit was a major pain for a team with the financial resources to spend to the maximum each and every season. Because of the way the deal was structured, Clarkson was seen as buyout-proof, which left Toronto with a serious problem.
No longer. With Horton’s career almost certainly over, the Maple Leafs can stick him on long-term injured reserve, likely for the next five years. It’s not quite the same thing as having Clarkson’s contract erased from the books, but it is the next-best thing. It allows the team to exceed the salary cap by the amount of Horton’s contract each year, greatly increasing the team’s breathing room.
Even for a team that recently committed to a scorched-earth rebuild, that matters. In the short term, it gives the Leafs more flexibility to take salary back in deals, letting them make moves they wouldn’t otherwise be able to make. If a team out there has a short-term cap headache it needs to move to make a deal work, Toronto can take it. If the return on a trade will be higher if the Leafs retain salary, they can retain it. This gives Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis significantly more flexibility.
And in the long term, it will make the emergence from the rebuild easier too. Clarkson’s contract was for the next five years, and if all goes according to plan, at some point in that window Toronto will undoubtedly want to add pieces as it pulls itself back into contention. Now the Leafs can do that without worrying about the limits imposed by the lousy Clarkson deal.
It’s to Toronto’s credit that it pulled the trigger on this move. There are other teams out there with significant salary-cap headaches. As an example, the Los Angeles Kings might have benefited similarly by sending Mike Richards to Columbus in exchange for Nathan Horton, thereby ridding themselves of a terrible contract. The Leafs got there first.
This is the rare trade that will definitely work for both teams, and it’s a great example of the way financial clout can help a big-money team buy its way out of jams. Toronto’s ownership deserves credit for spending the money. Leafs management deserves credit for finding a creative way out of a bad situation.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.