Making Sense of the David Clarkson for Nathan Horton Trade

David Clarkson's contract was holding back Toronto's rebuild. How and why did they flip it for Nathan Horton's deal?

Thursday evening, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Dave Nonis, shocked the hockey world by doing the unthinkable: he traded David Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton while not retaining any of Clarkson's salary.

So what happened?

Clarkson's contract was the elephant in the room for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their supposed rebuild. In the summer of 2013, Clarkson signed a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with Toronto that was criticized at the time for being too rich and too long for a player that many viewed as only apt for a support role.

Doomed from the Beginning

His career in Toronto got off to a rough start even before Clarkson played a regular season game for the Leafs.

During the 2013-14 preseason, Clarkson left the bench to take part in a line-brawl during the infamous Phil Kessel stick-swinging incident. That left Clarkson with a 10-game suspension to start the season and turned John Scott into public enemy number one for the season in Toronto. Not a good start.

For much for the rest of that first year and into this season, Clarkson struggled with his new team and never found the scoring touch that he had displayed in New Jersey.


That left Leafs' fans frustrated with team management for a failed signing and made Clarkson one of the posterboys for all that is and was wrong with the struggling franchise.

Damaged Goods

Columbus wasn't in any better of a situation with Horton. In the same 2013 offseason, the Blue Jackets signed Horton (the Panthers' 2003 first-round, third overall draft pick) to a seven-year $37.1 million pact. It would expire the same time as Clarkson's. Unfortunately for Horton and Columbus, he was coming off shoulder surgery that summer and would not be able to make his Blue Jackets debut until early 2014.

In 36 games in 2013-14, Horton scored five goals and 19 points and never really found his groove. Before this season started, Horton was diagnosed with “degeneration” of the entire lumbar region of his spine, and there is genuine concern that he will never play hockey again.


It's All About the $

So we have one overpaid player and one long-term injury. Why was this trade made?

Essentially it all comes down to money. According to Forbes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the league's most valuable franchise, boasting a $1.3 billion valuation. Conversely, Columbus is worth "only" $200 million, placing behind everyone except the Florida Panthers.

While Horton and Clarkson's salaries come out close to the same, their cap hit differs greatly. Since Horton is on the long-term injury reserve, his cap hit is $0 until he plays again but is still owed the money on his contract. This is advantageous to the resource-rich Maple Leafs; they can afford to pay Horton for the remainder of his contract, but in so doing, they receive salary cap relief to help them rebuild. For Columbus, they get a warm body that can lace up the skates, and they will hope that Clarkson will have a resurgence of sorts and get back to the player he was in New Jersey.

SeasonClarkson SalaryClarkson Cap HitHorton SalaryHorton Cap Hit**
2014-15*-$1.27 million-1.282
**If Horton doesn't play, the Cap Hit is $0
All salary numbers courtesy of NHLnumbers.com

In the end, this is costing Columbus approximately $1.4 million to upgrade from an injured Horton to a healthy, but overpaid, Clarkson. For a cash conscious club, that is a good deal. They cannot afford to pay a player not to play.

As for Toronto, if Horton never plays again, they essentially bought out Clarkson without taking the salary cap penalty and saved some cash and cap room to use this offseason. At very worst, they got themselves out of the albatross of a contract for the next five years, and their fans, players, and management team can forget about the past and pretend it never happened.

It's a pretty good deal for both clubs.