At first glance, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ acquisition of David Clarkson’s contract and a fourth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for goaltender Garret Sparks, seems like a small bit of salary cap house-cleaning, as well as a tidy way of dealing with a backup goaltender situation that had become untenable for Sparks in Toronto (this makes especially good sense in light of Michael Neuvirth’s announcement that he has agreed to a go to the Leafs’ upcoming training camp on a professional tryout basis).
The Leafs also announced the signings of six forwards and a defenceman on Wednesday. Forwards Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, Tyler Gaudet, Kalle Kossila, Nick Shore and Garrett Wilson, and defenceman Kevin Gravel have all inked deals with Toronto.
But as this is the Toronto Maple Leafs and, as their assistant GM, Brendan Pridham helped to design the complex salary cap rules that now govern the CBA, there’s a lot more to these deals than meets the eye, especially the “return” of David Clarkson (who is done as an active Leaf). For the best description of what this all means, it’s worthwhile having a look at Steve Dangle’s latest LFR, or this Twitter thread from Earl Schwartz (a self-described salary cap aficionado, who really does an excellent job explaining what the Leafs have really done here). Both tease out the broader implications of this transaction in a very smart and technical way, especially as it relates to the biggest bit of unfinished business for the Leafs, namely re-signing restricted RFA, Mitch Marner.
The bottom line is this: having both David Clarkson and Nathan Horton under contract enables the Leafs to get the full Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) relief worth the full value of their combined cap hits. Prior to trading for Clarkson, Toronto would not have been at the full salary cap ceiling, and therefore wouldn’t have been eligible for the full LTIR relief IF MARNER REMAINED UNSIGNED BY OCTOBER 1. Clarkson’s contract, in other words, gives Toronto considerably enhanced salary cap flexibility, right up to the start of the season.
Arcane salary cap technicalities aside, the bottom line, in my opinion, is this: The Clarkson deal represents checkmate for the Mitch Marner camp. Because of that deal (as Dangle and Schwartz illustrate), the Leafs have garnered considerable cap flexibility by October 1st in the event that Marner deploys a Nylander strategy and decides to hold out. Marner’s leverage might not be gone, but it is considerably mitigated by virtue of the Clarkson transaction, which in effect gives Toronto an additional $10.5m in cap space (if one also includes the Nathan Horton contract and Toronto, as expected, places both players on the LTIR).
To paraphrase The Who’s Pete Townsend, the Leafs won’t get fooled again. They’re doing a bunch of smart things in clearing out roster cap space without depleting the impressive pieces that Dubas has already assembled. They’ve added considerable 2nd tier depth. Now Toronto can still re-sign Marner (who’s still a valuable asset, just overpriced) if he decides to be realistic, or they can turn him into stuff they also can use to upgrade in a variety of ways if a long holdout looms.
How, you ask? Well, one possibility is Dubas extending an offer sheet to one of Winnipeg’s two RFAs. Or maybe he looks to trade Marner for, say, Aaron Ekblad (who looked fantastic playing alongside Morgan Rielly in the World Cup in 2016)? Or perhaps some combination of a trade for Ekblad, along with talking to the Rangers to explore the possibility of acquiring Chris Kreider to offset some of the lost offense? (If Kreider trade talks are initiated, I’d personally also love to see the Leafs explore the possibility of acquiring one of New York’s excellent young goaltenders, such as Alexandar Georgiev, aka “The Bulgarian Wall” – perhaps the best nickname in the NHL – who still has a year to run on a contract paying him $792,500, and would instantly provide the Leafs with their best goalie tandem in years.)
By contrast, Mitch Marner is the one who stands to lose most by virtue of today’s deal. Sure he can sign an expensive offer sheet (assuming it comes along, which is looking less and less likely as we move through the summer) with a team like Columbus, or the Islanders. Of course, that will end his career as a Leaf and his endorsement dollars will be a smidgen of the millions he is now making in the Toronto market (where he has been beloved).
So what do you want to do Mitch? Have your team keep bitching to Darren Dreger that you’re insufficiently “respected” because you haven’t yet received a Matthews or Tavares-sized offer? Or play for a fan base that adores you, where IF you win a Cup, you’ll be a legend for life? And still make a ton of money (likely starting with a 9 handle, rather than 11, but with a lot more endorsement possibilities that will more than make up the difference).
Because you’re not Matthews or Tavares, but there’s no shame in that (how many players are in reality)? The truth is that the Leafs just aren’t paying Marner what he now is apparently demanding. His agent is overplaying his hand (and he’s done this before with other clients). It’s still early in the summer, but by virtue of the Clarkson deal, the leverage of a holdout has been considerably diminished (especially if no other NHL team has come in with an offer sheet by the start of the season).
So if that’s what Marner wants, he’s better off looking elsewhere and letting Toronto know. I hardly think a year in the KHL is what he or his negotiating team has in mind as an alternative. On the other hand, if Marner wants to win in his hometown without wrecking the team’s long term salary cap structure, he’s got to change course before September. He can do that.
As he’s shown here, Mitch can turn on a dime pretty quickly when he wants to.