Maple Leafs trade David Clarkson, acquire Nathan Horton
The Maple Leafs have traded forward David Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Nathan Horton. (TORONTO SUN/FILES)
It was a dream come true for David Clarkson to play for the NHL team in his hometown.
Instead, the Etobicoke native’s time with the Maple Leafs turned into a frustrating and underachieving run. The nightmare ended on Thursday when Toronto general manager David Nonis managed to deal Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
A near-disaster from the start, Clarkson was never able to deliver the agitating, efficient form that made him a solid NHLer with the New Jersey Devils.
In return, the Leafs get one-time all-star Nathan Horton, a high-end forward who is sidelined with a severe back injury and may never play again.
“(Clarkson) didn’t have the year last year that we had hoped,” Nonis said of the deal that was announced shortly before Thursday’s Air Canada Centre meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers. “I thought this year he was better. Sometimes players, for whatever reason, don’t fit in with a certain city or a certain organization.
“We were in a situation where it wasn’t working out as well as we had hoped or he had hoped, and he recognized that.”
To make the deal possible — and help Nonis pull off a near miracle in getting rid of a huge salary that could have been crippling to the Leafs rebuild — Clarkson had to waive a partial no-movement clause.
The Leafs will have to pay Horton, even if he never plays again, but will get significant salary cap relief in the process. For a franchise with deep pockets, it’s a luxury Toronto can afford, but Columbus could not.
Nonis had signed Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75-million US contract in the summer of 2013, one that never had a chance of living up to that value. His life as a Leaf began with a 10-game suspension and, other than an occasional decent stretch, never significantly improved.
In 118 games with the Leafs, Clarkson had 15 goals and 16 assists and was a minus-25. He was also a healthy scratch for a couple of games earlier this season.
Moving Clarkson is arguably the most significant move Nonis has made in what appears to be a major tear-down of the struggling club. And Thursday’s move perhaps sent a signal to the core of the team that more changes are coming.
In a 12-day stretch, Nonis already has traded defenceman Cody Franson plus forwards Mike Santorelli (to Nashville), Daniel Winnik (to Pittsburgh) and now Clarkson. Is more to come prior to Monday’s NHL trade deadline? Don’t bet against it.
With the players that were clearly heading out of town now gone, Nonis can now focus on other pieces.
“If there’s a deal there that makes sense for any of our players, whether it’s any of the (unrestricted free agents) that are left or whether it’s a player that has term left, we would look to do it,” Nonis said. “Right now, I’d tell you that we’re not close on anything else, but Monday’s still a little ways away.”
Rumours persist that there is interest in centre Tyler Bozak — with the New York Rangers high among the potential suitors. With four days to continue working the phones, Nonis and his staff will remain active.
While the Leafs are essentially getting rid of a big-money player that was a bust here, the Jackets are hoping he can rekindle some of the hard-edged play that made Clarkson valuable with the Devils.
Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen pointed to the challenge of playing in Toronto, a heat that some players handle better than others.
“Things didn’t work out for him in Toronto,” Kekalainen told reporters in Columbus. “That happens for a lot of different players in this league.
“David Clarkson was a 30-goal scorer in his best year in New Jersey. Whether he can get back to that, nobody has a crystal ball. But he’s been to the Stanley Cup final. He’s played for a winner in New Jersey. He’s a guy who competes hard, a heart-and-soul type of player.”
The Leafs didn’t see enough of that, obviously, and it is clear he wasn’t going to be a part of the rebuild. That Nonis was able to clear salary cap room aids that process.
Horton brings a similar contract to Toronto — seven years, $37.1 million, also signed in July 2013 — but has not played since April 9, 2014. Once a star in the league, there is serious doubt that he will ever play again given the 29-year-old Welland native’s back troubles.
“You don’t know how it’s going to turn out for us,” Nonis said. “If he does play, Nathan is a world-class player. He’s been an elite player. He’s won a Cup. He’s done a lot of good things ... if that does happen, that will be great.
“If that doesn’t happen, then we’re not in any worse situation financially. Plus we have cap space available to use going forward.”
Nonis won’t be holding his breath on ever seeing Horton in a Leafs uniform, a notion not defused by his agent, Paul Krepelka.
“Nothing has changed regarding his injury,” Krepelka told the Sun’s Terry Koshan on Thursday night. “He’s still unable to play.”
He’s Leafs property now, however. Acquired for Clarkson, who is still able to play — if not up to his potential while in Toronto.