Johnston: Nonis boldly ventures into new territory

David Clarkson is the first player the Leafs have signed to a contract longer than five years.(AP/Julio Cortez)

TORONTO — Dave Nonis is the 14th general manager in the nearly 100-year history of the Toronto Maple Leafs and he is the first to make a commitment like this one.

Never before had the franchise signed a player to a deal lasting longer than five years, according to Sportsnet’s research department — at least not until a wild free-agent Friday around the NHL.

David Clarkson was given that plus two more from his boyhood team as Nonis fearlessly ventured into new territory at a time of great uncertainty around the NHL, where the ramifications of the next collective bargaining agreement are still to be felt.

Of course, other teams have been doing this sort of thing for years while the Leafs demurred. But times have changed and Toronto’s front office is under new management and there was no player that Nonis wanted more than Clarkson.

“As much as I think David was wanting to come to Toronto, I’m pretty certain if I tried to go five or six years that we wouldn’t be standing here right now,” he said in the team’s offices high above Air Canada Centre. “I was fairly comfortable with (agent) Pat (Morris) telling me that teams were jumping in this afternoon at seven years and fairly significant money. I didn’t think he was trying to lead us on.

“If we wanted to get in on a player like David Clarkson, that was the price tag for us to pay.”

It’s a fascinating time for a team like the Leafs to start paying it.

The $36.75 million over seven years was clearly market value for the free-agent winger — Edmonton is believed to have offered more — but with the salary cap shrinking next season every dollar spent will be just a little bit more important.

There could also be a ripple effect now that the precedent has been set.

For instance, you’d have to think that both Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf will seek megadeals (the new CBA allows them to sign for as long as eight years) when the Leafs approach them about extensions that need to be signed by next summer.

On top of all that, Nonis had to use a compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski earlier this week just to free up the space to add Clarkson and re-sign centre Tyler Bozak (not to mention the cadre of restricted free agents still waiting for new deals).

And Nonis indicated that the $21-million, five-year deal signed by Bozak on Friday afternoon wasn’t even in place when he decided to part ways with Grabovski a day earlier.

“No, not at all — which made for a very uncomfortable sleep last night,” he said. “We knew when we did it that there was a risk that we would end up with a lot of cap space and neither one of these players today.”

However, these seem to be risky times around the NHL and Nonis is hoping that fortune favours the bold. The off-season had already been productive with the additions of goaltender Jonathan Bernier and centre David Bolland in trades and he hinted Friday that more wheeling-and-dealing could be done before the end of the summer.

One area that could still warrant some attention from the GM is the blue-line, where 24-year-old free agent T.J. Brennan was added for depth but otherwise no changes have been made.

As for Clarkson, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

For the first time ever, the CBA allowed pending free agents to talk to prospective teams before hitting the open market and he made stops in Ottawa, Toronto, Columbus and Edmonton to meet face-to-face with GMs earlier this week.

When decision day arrived, the chance to play in his hometown was something that couldn’t be passed up.

“At the end of the day, I think in my heart this is where I wanted to be,” said Clarkson.

On the surface, he looks like a perfect fit on Randy Carlyle’s lunchbox squad.

Clarkson is a power forward who has all the tools needed to score 20-plus goals while averaging more than 100 minutes in penalties. And just like Bolland, you can be sure that he would be thrown on the ice with Toronto protecting a three-goal lead in a make-or-break game.

In other words, he’ll be expected to thrive in the blue and white.

“If David Clarkson doesn’t score 30 goals in a Leaf uniform but provides all the other things that we know he’s going to provide we’re pretty comfortable that we’re a better team (with him),” said Nonis.

That only stands to reason given the steep price it took to get him here.

It’s worth noting that just nine players in Leafs history had previously received contracts lasting five years in length, with only Jason Blake and Mike Komisarek signing those deals as unrestricted free agents.

But there’s a fine line to be walked between worrying endlessly about your cap situation and signing quality players and Nonis has clearly made a determination about where he stands on that topic.

“Listen, it’s going to happen more than once — you’re going to have seven- and eight-year deals,” he said. “They’re going to be for players that you think give you a chance to win. You make that decision going in.

“I’m not worried about (years) six and seven right now; I’m worried about one. In Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player.”

Beyond that, let the chips fall where they may.

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