TORONTO — The situation has already turned awkward and seems destined to become ugly.
Not yet two full seasons into a monster seven-year deal, neither David Clarkson nor the Toronto Maple Leafs can believe where they find themselves right now.
Clarkson was nowhere to be seen when the Leafs ended an 11-game losing streak on Saturday night after being made a healthy scratch. That could soon become a trend with interim coach Peter Horachek hinting that he’s inclined to stick with the same lineup against the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
While it’s not unprecedented to sit a well-paid NHL player — Clarkson’s $5.25-million cap hit is tied for third-highest on the team — it is unusual to do so when he has this much term remaining on his deal.
“I don’t really look at the contract,” Horachek said after Monday’s practice. “I know it, I understand the political ramifications of everything that goes on. I have to try to push myself into just staying as a coach and doing what I think is best for the team.”
This is where it becomes tricky.
Clarkson is basically performing up to his career standard, arguably even a touch better, with an 11.4 percent shooting percentage that has helped him to 10 goals. Even though he has only scored three of those in the last 30 games and hasn’t recorded a power-play point since Oct. 31 despite consistently being used on the second unit, it’s hard to argue his play has dropped off.
Other than a 30-goal season in 2011-12, when Clarkson played major minutes in New Jersey and benefitted from hot shooting, this is who he is.
His defensive play hasn’t even been a major issue this season, with the Leafs controlling 45.7 percent of even-strength shot attempts while he’s on the ice. That’s only a hair worse than how Toronto performs when he isn’t out there.
Given all of that — and given the $27.5-million in actual dollars Clarkson is due to be paid in the next five years — it’s pretty troubling that the coach decided scratching him is best for a team three time zones removed from a playoff race.
No wonder Clarkson looked so uncomfortable on Monday afternoon. He clearly didn’t see the benching coming and was planning to seek out more of an explanation from Horachek.
“Well I didn’t know,” said Clarkson. “I think obviously the way things were going for the whole team, I think … but it’s never easy, you know. But it’s behind me, I went to practice today — got out there and got a good sweat on — and I’ll get ready for tomorrow.”
There’s not much more he can do.
The Leafs are a cap-strapped team, but it’s no coincidence that Clarkson’s name won’t be mentioned in trade rumours leading up to the March 2 deadline. His contract is immoveable and for that he can’t really be blamed.
What the decision to scratch him really highlighted is how much buyer’s remorse the organization is experiencing. Teams can ill afford to make major mistakes in a salary cap world and for general manager Dave Nonis that’s undeniably what the Clarkson deal has become.
The GM’s options are pretty limited now.
Because the deal is bonus-laden it would carry a particularly penal buyout schedule if the team chose to go in that direction this summer — the Leafs would carry between $3.7-million and $4.7-million in dead money the next five years and then $466,667 for each of the five seasons beyond that.
A more nuclear option could see the Leafs simply stop playing Clarkson, just as they did with Mike Komisarek in 2012-13, in hopes that he might waive a no-movement clause to be sent to the AHL. But even that would only get them a $925,000 savings on the cap.
The most likely outcome is to simply grin and bear it — and that means putting him back in the lineup sooner than later. Expectations should be lowered once that happens.
“I’ve talked to him,” said Horachek. “We want the most out of every player. We expect them to be pros and to work that much harder to be that much better.
“Everybody has to bring more to the table.”
It’s unclear how — or if — that message was received by Clarkson.
He spent extra time on the ice after Monday’s practice and was asked afterwards what he thinks he needs to do better in the future.
“You know what, I think as a team there were a lot of things we could do better in that stretch,” said Clarkson. “I think just getting back to where we were there early in the season. Hopefully get some bounces go our way.”
His answer didn’t even remotely address the question.
The truth of the matter is there’s only so much Clarkson can say after seeing the realization of his boyhood dream so quickly morph into a nightmare.