It was the type of trade the Toronto Maple Leafs desperately needed.
That they didn’t think of it first is really the only surprise.
The Columbus Blue Jackets knew they had a problem in Nathan Horton. His contract wasn’t insured, given his extensive injury history, and after trying to help him rehab a badly injured back for months, it was clear their efforts weren’t working.
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In incredible difficulty on a day-to-day level, Horton has begun to lean seriously toward a surgery that would fuse three or four of his vertebrae with a titanium rod.
His playing career, by all current medical definitions, would be over.
His $5.3-million cap hit would not.
That’s a huge problem for a team like Columbus. The Blue Jackets do not spend to the cap, as even with David Clarkson now on their books, they’re $5.4-million under.
The fact Horton can be placed on long-term injured reserve to exceed the cap was irrelevant given they can’t afford to get to the cap – let alone get over it.
The Leafs face no such barriers. In fact, the best possible outcome for The Clarkson Problem prior to this deal would have been for Clarkson to end up on LTIR with an injury.
Columbus first began contemplating this deal only last week, and the Leafs returned their call a few days later to accept. Originally, the Jackets wanted a prospect to come in the deal; eventually, they took only Clarkson.
They believe they can get $2.5-million or $3-million in value there by playing him on the third or fourth line.
Horton offered a guaranteed zero.
One of the reasons Columbus wanted to move on this trade now is it saves them more than $1-million this season, as Clarkson’s salary is negligible given he is paid primarily in signing bonuses that are given out each July.
An amount that’s negligible for the Leafs matters elsewhere, especially for a Jackets team that has been decimated by injuries and had to spend $3– to $4-million more than they wanted to fill those spots in a lost season.
Toronto’s capologist Brandon Pridham was apparently a significant help in getting this deal done in the sense he knows the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement and the LTIR ramifications better than almost anyone. He will also now be able get the Leafs to maximize their cap space with Horton on the books the next five years, as he has an intimate understanding how Boston and Philadelphia have navigated those waters with other players who have had career-ending injuries (Marc Savard and Chris Pronger).
The reality here is the Leafs have no problem spending over the cap. They welcome it, in fact, especially when it gives them an advantage over teams like Columbus. President Brendan Shanahan has been throwing MLSE money at staff (like Pridham) and improvements (especially in player development) already, but this was the first clear sign of doing so to help the on-ice product.
What wasn’t even an option for the Jackets is a godsend for a Toronto team desperate for cap space to begin its rebuild in earnest.
The Leafs still have four other key pieces to potentially unload – Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel – but the Clarkson deal alone guarantees their cap situation is much more forgiving.
When other top teams run into cap trouble – the way Chicago and Boston did in September – Toronto can now be waiting to take advantage, just as the Islanders did in adding two top four defenders in Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk.
The Leafs are, in other words, extremely lucky. This is a get out of jail free card for a horrendous mistake on a horrendous contract.
And the only reason it could happen is there are teams like Columbus that have to count every dollar, even for players that can’t even play.