Today has been chock full of trades that no one saw coming. First the Florida Panthers swung a deal for Jaromir Jagr, and now the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs have swapped forwards. Nathan Horton—who hasn’t played since April 9th against the Dallas Stars—is heading to Toronto, while maligned forward David Clarkson is going to Ohio.
It’s a curious, out-of-left-field trade that no one saw coming for a number of reasons. Mainly that Clarkson has one of the worst contracts in the NHL and Horton may never be able to play again due to lingering back problems. What the Maple Leafs get out of the trade in the immediate future seems pretty clear.
If the 29-year-old is unable to play, then the team can keep him and his $5.3 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve.
Nathan Horton: Age 29 6'2 229 Cap Hit: $5.3 2014-15: $6M 2015-16: $6M 2016-17: $6M 2017-18: $6M 2018-19: $4.5M 2019-20: $3.6M 2020-21: UFA
— Oak Tank (@oak_leafs) February 26, 2015
It’s also important to note that Horton’s deal is reportedly uninsured. That’s a scenario a rich team like the Maple Leafs may be just a bit more comfortable with than their Columbus counterparts. The Blue Jackets operate under a budget, while the Maple Leafs are flush with cash.
It seems likely that this is the only scenario where General Manager Dave Nonis would have been able to shed Clarkson’s terrible deal.
Got confirmation that Nathan Horton's contract was not insured. So this might be the only scenario in NHL where Clarkson trade makes sense.
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) February 26, 2015
Toronto will still be paying Horton, but it will have cap space available to them as the scorched Earth rebuild carries on over the next few seasons. If Horton is able to ever lace up the skates again, odds are good that he’ll be able to outperform Clarkson, who has been unable to live up to the seven-year, $36.75 million contract he signed in the summer of 2013.
It’s easy to see what the Leafs get out of this deal, but why would the Blue Jackets want to take on a cap anchor like Clarkson? Remembering that Horton’s deal isn’t insured, it’s a simple matter of getting something for their money instead of nothing. Horton’s situation is incredibly sad, but Columbus was pumping money into what amounts to a black hole. The player wasn’t doing anything for the team. At least Clarkson can take up a spot in the bottom-six and give the Blue Jackets a little depth scoring.
His cap hit is brutal, but in the eyes of the Blue Jackets, not as brutal as paying a large sum of money to an inactive player until 2020 without any insurance benefit. Columbus needed a body, not cap relief.
The Blue Jackets have had a tough 2014-15; a season that once held great promise derailed by injuries to key players like Horton and Sergei Bobrovsky. This is still a team on the rise though, and Clarkson might be able to fit in with the Blue Jackets. Horton left Boston for the more low-key environment in Ohio, and perhaps Clarkson will be able to simplify his game and get back to crashing the net now that no one is expecting him to be Wendel Clark.
Toronto is a tough place to be right now. Anyone that is making more than $2 million a year on that roster has been constantly under fire from the local media, and it’s easy to see the impact of that out on the ice. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Clarkson were three easy targets when it came to the why the Maple Leafs stink blame game. Columbus is a budding hockey town, but it’s not the only show in town either.
Clarkson gets a fresh start with a Blue Jackets team that tries to be hard to play against. This is city that values character—look at how they’ve embraced Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky—and the 30-year-old has plenty of sand paper.
Columbus now rosters Clarkson, Dubinsky, James Wisniewski, Scott Hartnell and Jared Boll. If you’re a fan of north-south hockey, you’re a fan of this makeup. They aren’t going to tic-tac-toe too many opportunities, but this wouldn’t be a fun squad to square off with in the postseason.
There’s no way that Clarkson will ever be able to live up to his contract. It would have been dumb for him not to take the monster offer after fewer than 100 games as an effective scoring forward, and he shouldn’t be blamed for the terrible deal the Maple Leafs signed him to. At this point, the word is out on Clarkson and expectations will be lower in Columbus.
Regardless of how many goals he scores or fights he gets into, at least it’s something. That seems to be the idea behind this for the Blue Jackets, while Toronto frees up some cap space and can move on after this catastrophic free agent signing.