How Toronto got out from under Clarkson’s contract

The Hockey Central panel recaps the Nathan Horton for David Clarkson trade that sees the Toronto Maple Leafs gain financial flexibility.

TORONTO — The first thing you need to know about the Toronto Maple Leafs escape from salary cap jail is that it was the Columbus Blue Jackets who first proposed Thursday’s stunning David Clarkson for Nathan Horton swap.

In fact, the Leafs probably wouldn’t have even believed such a transaction was possible with Horton’s career in jeopardy because of a serious back injury.

However, they learned in recent days that Horton’s contract wasn’t insured and Columbus didn’t want to pay the veteran winger $26.1-million over the next five years to not play. Given that Toronto no longer wanted to pay Clarkson $27.5-million for the next five years to play, there was a perfect fit.

Everything basically came together in a little more than a day.

"The money lined up, which was a big part of it," said Toronto GM Dave Nonis.

This was a rare example of the Leafs being able to use their considerable financial might to gain a competitive advantage in the cap world. Clarkson's contract amounted to a disastrous $37.5-million mistake -- one most teams couldn't simply sweep under the rug -- but it will no longer hang like a weight around the neck of the cap-strapped club.

For Toronto, the deal is nothing short of a Houdini act.

As one rival executive put it: "Wow. No other words."

The odds of Clarkson seeing Year 7 of his seven-year deal in Toronto appeared unlikely from the day it was signed. However, it was vital that the Leafs managed to get out from under it without having to use a compliance buyout or take back a player like Mike Richards.

Suddenly, the organization possesses as much cap flexibility as its ever had.

Nonis even hinted that they likely won't be spending to the ceiling next year as the Great Rebuild begins to take shape. Clarkson is the first core player to be sent packing, but he won't be the last. 

"We need to make some changes, and that's apparent," said Nonis.

The Leafs plan to remain open for business right up until Monday afternoon's trade deadline. They certainly have more assets to peddle.

In Columbus, this deal came down to dollars and common sense. They are a budget-conscious organization and would rather be paying Clarkson to play than Horton to sit.

"This is a very important financial decision for us," Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters. "It gives us a player."

Clarkson had to waive a no-movement clause to facilitate the trade and will be grateful for the fresh start. The dream of playing for his hometown team quickly turned into a nightmare as he failed to live up to the expectations that came with his sizeable paycheque.

He was suspended 10 games before ever suiting up in the regular season for the Leafs after jumping off the bench to start a fight in a September 2013 exhibition with Buffalo. He then struggled to play catch up and managed just five goals and 11 points in 60 games.

Even though Clarkson produced slightly more this year, he scored just once in his last 25 games and was twice scratched earlier this month.

The situation was becoming untenable and most figured that the Leafs and Clarkson were tied to one another by his monster contract.

Nonis phoned the player after dealing him to Columbus.

"He was disappointed that it didn't work out," said Nonis. "I know how happy he was to be a Leaf. It was a big deal for him to come here. He turned down more money and different teams to play in his hometown, so I think that was a disappointing part for him."

The Blue Jackets are gambling that he'll be rejuvenated by a change of scenery.

"David Clarkson was a 30-goal scorer in his best year in New Jersey," said Kekalainen. "Whether he can get back to that, nobody has a crystal ball. But he's been to the Stanley Cup final. He's played for a winner in New Jersey. He's a character player. He's a guy who competes hard, a heart-and-soul type of player.

"That's why we're excited to have David."

Evidently, there are at least two sides to every story.

The real takeaway from this deal? The Leafs were in the right place at the right time to erase one of the worst mistakes in team history.

Good on them for seizing the opportunity.