Maple Leafs re-acquire David Clarkson's contract in perplexing deal with Golden Knights
Trying to make sense of a deal that pretty much no one saw coming
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in one of the NHL's tightest cap crunches this offseason, needing to free up enough money to re-sign star forward Mitch Marner as he looks to cash in with a big deal as a restricted free agent.
That's why Tuesday's news that Toronto had acquired -- or more appropriately, re-acquired -- the contract of David Clarkson in addition to a fourth round pick from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for goaltender Garret Sparks initially came as a bit of stunning news.
The move left plenty of fans confused because, on paper, it results in $5.25 million being added to the Maple Leafs' cap for next season. That number comes via the final year Clarkson's seven-year, $36.75 million deal -- originally given to him by the Leafs in 2013 -- and the fact that Sparks is currently without a contract as an RFA.
By adding Clarkson, Toronto's total team cap hit moves to $82.23 million with 22 players under contract -- exceeding the league's hard cap of $81.5 million.
On the surface, this seems like a move that's completely in the wrong direction for the Leafs. But it's a bit more complicated than that, thanks to the NHL's extremely complex Long Term Injured Reserve rules.
Clarkson, 35, is unquestionably destined for the LTIR. It's been three years since he's played an NHL game, and he won't play again due to degenerative back issues that have forced him into an unofficial early retirement from the game.
Even though his playing days are done, Clarkson has still been collecting his salary while stashed on LTIR over the past few seasons. It's a contractual situation that's not entirely uncommon in the NHL; In fact, the winger was traded by the Maple Leafs to Columbus in exchange for the contract of Nathan Horton, a player who was similarly forced into an early retirement, in 2015.
In acquiring Clarkson's deal from Vegas, the Leafs will agree to pay his base salary ($1 million) while his AAV of $5.25 million counts towards the cap, but they have a few options when it comes to overcoming the cap hit.
The Leafs were seemingly already prepared to use the LTIR designation for the final year of Horton's contract, which carries a cap hit of $5.3 million. By acquiring Clarkson, the Leafs can pair the two together on LTIR once the season begins and give themselves about $10.5 million in cap flexibility. They would essentially be writing off those cap hits.
According to CapFriendly, Toronto can now look to build a roster with a total projected cap hit as high as $92,050,000, then place both Horton & Clarkson on LTIR to cover the $10.55M difference from the league's set cap. As it stands, that would give them about $9.815 million in cap space to allocate to a potential Marner deal.
Alternatively, the Leafs could build a roster that reaches but does not exceed the $81.5M ceiling (requiring them to lose about $800,000 in cap hit) before then placing both Clarkson & Horton on LTIR after the season officially starts. This approach would most likely prevent them from signing Marner before the season, but would give the club $10.55M in additional cap space once the year begins. In this scenario, they could theoretically sign Marner on Day 2 of the season and have a little bit more money to do so.
In a possible third option presented by CapFriendly, the Leafs could build a roster that reaches about $89.9 million (or $8.14 million above the ceiling) before placing Horton, Travis Dermott & Zach Hyman on LTIR before the season (Dermott and Hyman will carry injuries into the season) in order to cover the difference. Then they could place Clarkson on LTIR once the season officially begins, giving them $5.2M in additional space.
With pretty much all of these scenarios, the Leafs will have extremely limited flexibility when it comes to altering their roster during the course of the season.
So while the acquisition of Clarkson is somewhat of a perplexing and complicated transaction on paper, at its core it's basically Toronto paying $1,000,000 million in cash (Clarkson's base salary) in order to dump Sparks for a fourth-round draft pick and pick up some LTIR cushion. On the other side, Vegas gladly gives up the pick to shed Clarkson's deal in their quest to gain a little flexibility on the cap heading into the season.
But the most important thing to note from Toronto's perspective is that the LTIR designation provides them with some options to keep the dream of signing Marner alive even as their cap situation seemingly becomes more dire, though it now seems a bit more unlikely that a Marner extension comes before the start of the year.
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