The Toronto Maple Leafs did the unthinkable Thursday – at least, in the eyes of hockey watchers and amateur salary capologists – when they traded highly-paid, underachieving right winger David Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for severely injured right winger Nathan Horton, who may never play another NHL game due to a bad back.
Many believed Clarkson's contract, which has a cap hit of $5.25 million through the 2018-19 season, would be impossible for Leafs management to move. But to Toronto's credit, they recognized a situation in which they could use their corporate heft to their advantage:
Horton's degenerative back condition, which was diagnosed in October, has many expecting he'll remain on Long Term Injured Reserve until his contract expires in 2019. His contract wasn't insured – meaning the Jackets were stuck paying every penny of that deal regardless of his health – while Clarkson at least is a player Columbus can put in the lineup every night. He has 10 goals and 15 points in 58 games with Toronto this season, but he clearly wasn't producing at a level commensurate with the money. Horton's average $5.3 million cap hit makes the swap a virtual wash numbers-wise, and incredibly, Toronto didn't have to pay any portion of the 29-year-old's salary to send him packing. The Leafs will be overjoyed to pay Horton to sit on the sidelines and use that salary cap space to help their massive rebuilding project.
This time last season – during which Clarkson was a constant target of fan and media ridicule for scoring just five goals and 11 points in 60 games – hockey fans and media types believed no GM would take on either his contract or the term and money remaining on former Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo's deal. Now, both are gone. Leafs GM Dave Nonis may not have saved his job with this trade, but the work he, president Brendan Shanahan & Co. have done to get Clarkson off their books is like a magic act, and Toronto's future, while still not particularly bright in the short-term, sure got brighter in the big picture.
We knew after Wayne Gretzky was traded that no NHLer was safe from the trade block. But on Thursday, the Leafs proved no indefensible overpayment is radioactive enough for another GM not to take a chance on.