The Toronto Maple Leafs announced today that they have acquired David Clarkson and a 2020 fourth-round pick in exchange for goaltender Garret Sparks.
Clarkson, 35, has not appeared in a game over the past three seasons due to a career-ending back injury and will be placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR).
Clarkson signed a seven-year, $36.75 million deal with the Leafs back in July of 2013 in what turned out to be the worst free agent signing in Leafs history. Six years later, after being passed through the Columbus and Vegas cap books, he’s owed just $1 million in real salary in the final year of this deal, which comes with a $5.25 million cap hit. The Leafs already have Nathan Horton on their LTIR, so essentially they’re plunging deeper into the LTIR relief knowing they’re going to be over the cap anyway. Vegas, meanwhile, now has a chance to get out of the LTIR process altogether and offload Clarkson’s remaining money.
Sparks, 26, was Toronto’s seventh round pick back in 2011, and spent last season as Toronto’s backup goalie. After posting a .902 save percentage across 20 starts, he dropped behind Michael Hutchinson in the depth chart. It now looks like Hutchinson will battle PTO signing Michal Neuvirth for the backup job in camp, and you wonder if Kyle Dubas did Sparks a favour by giving him a chance to succeed elsewhere, rather than asking him to compete for a job that he was not likely to win.
The Leafs get some added value here by picking up a mid-round pick in the trade, but what is most interesting is the three-dimensional chess underway with their cap space. Cap Friendly has already begun to speculate this regard:
Another option for the #Leafs is to build a roster right up until the $81.5M ceiling, then place both Clarkson & Horton on LTIR once the season starts, and giving the club $10.55M in addional cap space. This scenario is only likely if Marner doesn’t sign before the season begins. https://t.co/zkNTVWvObn
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) July 23, 2019
What is likely happening here is that the Leafs — in addition to getting the fourth-round pick out of it and moving Sparks elsewhere, which is somewhat secondary — are allowing themselves to build a 23-man roster that is as tight to the cap ceiling as possible before triggering LTIR relief.
Why that is important is because of the outstanding Mitch Marner contract situation. If Marner is still not signed by the end of camp, the Leafs were not going to be able to fully maximize their LTIR relief prior to this trade. By having a roster that is snug to the limit regardless of whether Marner is signed or not by the roster deadline, they can ensure they have roughly $10.5-10.6 million in relief available to them once Marner does join the fold.
Remember: LTIR relief is only available to teams on a dollar-by-dollar basis as it is actually used by the team. It is not free space once the player(s) are moved onto LTIR. Prior to the start of the season, clubs that are dipping into LTIR have two avenues to maximize their flexibility: They can either build a roster that exceeds the cap by the maximum amount of the relief available and then move the player(s) onto LTIR, or they can position themselves below the cap but as as tight to the limit as possible before doing so. Without Marner on the cap as of yet, the Leafs can’t do the former. The addition of Clarkson allows them to do the latter, so they’re protected in either scenario, whether Marner is signed by the start of the season or not.
If Marner does sign before camp, the Leafs can simply go with the option of building a roster that exceeds the cap by up to the full amount of the Horton and Clarkson contracts and go about their business that way.
In sum: The Leafs get a fourth-round pick and move out Sparks’ contract here, but the biggest accomplishment is ensuring they’re ready for any scenario cap-wise as they wait for a resolution to the Marner situation, whenever that may come.
written by Kevin Papetti and Alec Brownscombe