A deadline of selling rentals and stockpiling depth picks was expected, until the Columbus Blue Jackets came calling with an offer too good to be true.
Somehow, Toronto got out of the David Clarkson era relatively unscathed.
Last summer, the Leafs signed three effective top-nine forwards who can each play up and down the line-up, at every forward position, drive play, play on the PK, and chip in 25+ points.
Combined, Leo Komarov, Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli accounted for a $5.7M cap hit. On his own, David Clarkson made $5.25M. This season Clarkson will finish with fewer points than each despite playing more on the power play than all three put together. Despite all of that, he was still unhappy about his role and it is safe to assume he wanted a change of scenery. To make matters worse, he was unable to play on the penalty kill or keep up with any of the Leafs skilled players, which effectively made him a L3 player and power play liability.
This is not hyperbole, or revisionist history: There were times, before the traded away half the team, when the Leafs were completely healthy and David Clarkson was not one of the 12 best forwards available, yet he played anyway.
It would be unfair to blame the state of the Leafs on Clarkson, and it would also be untrue because it is not completely his fault. However, getting rid of not only the contract, but an unhappy overpaid player that clearly wanted out and was being forced into the roster in lieu of superior players, is a big step forward for the organization.
If you don’t know about Nathan Horton and how LTIR works, you can read more about it here.
When it comes to the Leafs moving forward, there are three areas that this Clarkson trade is going to help moving forward.
The first is that the opened-up cap space will help prevent cap casualties. The elite teams in the league are not only built properly on ice, but there is a logical hierarchy off-ice in terms of how the dollars are distributed. Like any company, the key figures make the most, the young up and comers have to earn their way, and in the middle is some variance based on the perceived value of your role. Unfortunately for Clarkson, upwards of at least seven players on the team making less than him deserved to be making more than him. And yet Clarkson was not happy with his role and voiced it. Stars are going to make money no matter what; whether you like Phil Kessel or not, he would easily make $8M/season anywhere in the league. It’s those middle dollars that you overspend or save on that really hurt or help a cap situation. The Clarkson contract, in part, helped squeeze out prime middle aged players like Cody Franson and Nik Kulemin, but that is where the buck will stop thanks to this move.
The second boon to the move is that the Leafs can now allocate their money properly. The consequence of overpaying a third line player is having to look in the bargain bin to fill out the top six because there aren’t enough dollars to go around. In the last two years, the Leafs did this with Mason Raymond and Mike Santorelli. They found good value, no question, but now they can attempt to use those dollars for an established top-of-the-roster forward or defenseman, and then let those bargain bin signings fall in where they should. If they do it right, they’ll have gone from combining Clarkson with a bargain bin signing to combining a legitimate top 6 forward/top 4 D with a bargain bin signing. That is a huge roster swing.
The third benefit is that it opens up ice time and opportunity for (young) players who are more deserving. The nasty business side of the league is that, unfortunately, ice time can be dictated by salary. Nowhere was this more evident than on the power play, where Clarkson played over 112 minutes with the man advantage and had one point to show for it. Last season, Mason Raymond had 11 points in that PP2 slot; that swing of 8-10 points is a huge turn in production — ultimately points in the standings — and Raymond isn’t even that good. Let’s face it, the Leafs were handcuffed with Clarkson and had to play him. Players such as Winnik and Komarov have taken turns on the fourth line, and nobody says boo because the money isn’t significant enough to garner the attention. With Clarkson, it was. He was only demoted and eventually scratched when it was painfully obvious there was nothing else left to do.
When Columbus called the Leafs and offered them Nathan Horton, they gave them the ultimate get out of jail free card. There are other core players that need to be moved, but they are all at least somewhat productive. Clarkson simply was not. This move is a big step forward in the right direction, but it is tough to fully realize that right now. The trade is really not getting its due appreciation yet; it is going to really be something three years from now, looking back and imagining if Clarkson’s $5.25M cap hit was still on the books. Thanks to some luck, the player does not need to be discussed as a Leaf ever again.
- Other than the Clarkson deal, there were no other deals in the past week to discuss that were particularly eye opening. There was some creativity in eating Eric Brewer’s salary in order to gain a fifth round pick in exchange for Korbinian Holzer; they essentially bought a draft pick. The Olli Jokinen move was expected the second he was announced as a throw-in in the Nashville trade.
- Claiming Tim Erixon is the kind of shot the Leafs have to be taking right now, as they did with Richard Panik. Erixon has only 78 NHL games to his name, is 24, and has a pedigree and upside. To this point, he simply hasn’t proven that he is or isn’t NHL calibre and he hasn’t been given the opportunity or time to show how good he might be, and that is the type of player the Leafs have to be gambling on consistently right now. In his first game as a Leaf he played nearly 16 minutes with over 70% offensive zone starts, and he did not look out of his place as an NHLer. He’ll be a player to monitor the rest of the season, and it won’t be too difficult because his size was very noticeable on the backend.
- You do wonder, with the team getting Eric Brewer, if they missed an opportunity to trade Roman Polak for good value. Polak is a solid 5th defenseman who is right handed and can help a penalty kill, and he’s signed through next season on a cheap deal. Considering what other defensemen were garnering, at least on the outside looking in there appeared to be an opportunity to net some high-end value for a reasonable defenseman who could be replaced in the summer.
- The flip side to that is Polak can easily slot in beside one of the many young left-handed defensemen on the Leafs (Gardiner, Rielly, Erixon, Percy), and he’ll still have value next season.
- One thing about Polak, though, is he sometimes gets called a “crease clearer,” presumably because he’s big. However, over the weekend he was standing beside Brendan Gallagher as he knifed through Bernier leading to a Habs goal. Then, the next night, Jay Beagle slashed through Reimer with him on the ice. They are isolated examples, but there always seems to be a perception when a team acquires a bigger defenseman that he is automatically a crease clearer. Unfortunately, Leafs goalies get routinely run and it has been going on for years.
- Tyler Bozak has 31 career power play goals, and 10 of them are from this season. This appears to be the year that he’ll finally crack the 20-goal plateau.
- Joffrey Lupul’s .53PPG is his lowest since his one disaster season in Edmonton at 23, as well as his rookie year. This is his eleventh season in the league and he hasn’t played over 70 games since 08-09, and he turns 32 later this year.
[pull_quote_center]You get a glimpse into what other teams are thinking in terms of their own situations and what they might be looking at going forward. So yeah I think a lot of deals that do get done over time the genesis of those deals is not necessarily a week away, it may have been a year prior or six months prior. So I think that there may be more opportunities for us going forward based on some of the discussions we’ve had over the past couple of weeks.[/pull_quote_center]
– Dave Nonis, on the trade deadline and looking forward.
One such example people may recall is when the Leafs were in on John Michael Liles long before they finally acquired him at the draft. They wanted him at the deadline the season before, and were unable to come to an agreement. Everyone will think about revisiting Dion Phaneuf possibly going to Detroit, but the thing to look for is who goes out in the first round. Pittsburgh and the Rangers, for instance, both made major moves to try and go for it this year. They are going to be open for business if they become first round fodder. Teams that lose in the first round get antsy (see Leafs, post Bruins series).
[pull_quote_center]You know what? I’m just tired of it. I’ve finally had it. I think this city (Toronto) is a great hockey city and I love playing here. But some of the things that happen and Dion getting abused like he does, and things that are said about him. He’s our best defenceman. You guys are unfair in criticizing Dion. He is our best defenceman. And you guys act like he’s not trying. Is it his fault we’re losing? No. Did he build this team? No. The crap he takes, the things people say, I’m just tired of it here. He’s owed some apologies. It’s disgusting the way people treat him. A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves. I don’t think anyone deserves to be treated like that. I think a lot of media here should be embarrassed[/pull_quote_center]
– Phil Kessel, on the media in Toronto.
Well, first of all, he is absolutely correct. The media is kicking a dead horse and there is really just no need for it at this point. The team is poorly constructed and poor in the overall sense, but for some reason there is a need to create controversy around them still. I mean, there were media members who didn’t even understand what Kessel said, but felt the need to comment. That is par for the course in Toronto, and frankly it is embarrassing. In Columbus players used to go up to Rick Nash and ask him when he was going to get out of there and stop wasting his career away. How many times per game do you think that happens to Kessel? Eight? Ten? Twenty? He’s finally cracking, and it is a scary thought because one of the best things about Kessel was that he really didn’t care about the media. It never bothered him either way, but the losing and criticism appears to have finally put a chink in his shield this time around. And while all the drama unfolds my question is this: Where is Brendan Shanahan? His team –and even though these aren’t his players, it is his team—is getting run through the meat grinder and he is nowhere to be found. The last time a person in charge of the Leafs was this quiet it was JFJ and things got ugly really fast; JFJ’s team was mediocre, but honestly what are the odds the Leafs are good next year at this point? Shanahan clearly spent all deadline day trying to trade Dion Phaneuf and was unsuccessful; does he honestly think saying and doing nothing publicly is going to not hurt his odds of trading him for value? It shouldn’t matter either way, but it will. Phaneuf is getting run out of town and Kessel is the only one standing up and doing anything about it. Go figure.
[pull_quote_center]Why should Phil Kessel have to talk to these pukes every day?[/pull_quote_center]
– Brian Burke, in November 2014, wondering why Kessel should have to talk to the media daily.
Presenting this without comment.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think the rest of the season has to have Dion Phaneuf paired with one of Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly at all times. The team has yet to pair one of their growing defensemen with now the only veteran top-four D they have. They have to see if there is something there with Dion and one of the two puck movers, and worst case scenario those are the best scoring options on D to help Phaneuf’s numbers. Phaneuf was paired with Gardiner against Florida, but if you paid attention you would have noticed he was playing with Polak to close out periods. What is the point of that? Get Gardiner and Rielly all the ice time they can humanly handle. There is 18 games left in the season until it’s lights out until September. What’s the problem here? Rielly and Gardiner were third and fourth respectively on the Leafs D in TOI against Florida.
- I think there are a lot of layers to consider when pondering who should center Phil Kessel to close out the season. On one hand, the Leafs are going to try and move Bozak in the summer and want to inflate his numbers while keeping Kadri’s price tag down. They also want to keep losing. On the other hand, the remaining games in the season can be used valuably to give Kadri and Kessel extended experience together, to insert some life into the group, and to get a better idea of what Bozak is without Kessel. Ultimately, I think I would keep Bozak with Kessel for now, and would actually take JVR off that line for Lupul.
- I think, just to be clear, the tank is fully on and the kids on the Marlies should stay far, far away. The Leafs just dressed a fourth line of Zach Sill-Trevor Smith-Joakim Lindstrom, none of whom are NHLers on about 95 percent of the teams in the league. In a regular draft year I think it’s pretty reasonable to start getting kids like Connor Brown and William Nylander NHL ice time and build towards the following season, but this is a generational draft and needs to be treated accordingly. People don’t like to hear that, but it is the reality of the matter.
- I think, speaking of some of these non-NHLers, it at least makes sense to play Brandon Kozun. Unlike the three players just mentioned, Kozun is an RFA in the summer and still young and skilled enough to believe he can carve out some sort of limited, niche role for himself. Ultimately I don’t expect much from Kozun and he seems to get hammered every game, but hoping for Kozun to get into the line-up is the kind of season it has been. At least he goes hard and gets his nose dirty every shift, which is more enjoyable to watch than what a good chunk of the players are currently doing.
- I think it is going to be difficult to write five things each week until the end of the season.