One fishy deal
Senators lucky Leafs bust Clarkson declined their offer last summer
NHL general managers have their own hits and misses, big fish they pursue in rough, open waters. Sometimes they reel them in, more often they miss.
Routinely, the free agent that teams DON'T sign turns out to be the greatest move of all. Genius, by default.
This comes to mind in any discussion of David Clarkson, the gritty, longtime New Jersey Devils winger hotly pursued by the Ottawa Senators last summer, but who today represents the worst free agent signing of last summer. With a distressing seven-year deal for a 29-year-old of limited skill, the Toronto Maple Leafs invested $36.75 million in Clarkson, or a cap hit of $5.25 million.
Just over three years ago, Clarkson was being paid $875,000 by the Devils. In 2010, he signed a threeyear contract with a cap hit of $2.6 million, reasonable compensation for a character, third-line player who contributed 24 points per season on average during his first four full seasons with the Devils.
Timing is everything. Clarkson delivered his best numbers as free agency approached - a 30-goal, 46-point spree in 2011-12 and then 15 goals and 24 points in 48 games last season. On a talent-starved Devils roster, Clarkson progressed from a 12-or 13-minute per game grinder into a power play guy getting 16, 17 precious minutes a night. The good old days. As he tries to justify his new contract, wanting too badly to contribute, Clarkson has been a disaster for the fading Maple Leafs.
In 24 games played, Clarkson has two goals, four assists and is minus-5. In other words, his honeymoon period was shorter than Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman's. On a team racked by injuries, especially at forward, Clarkson has been part of the problem instead of part of the solution - not even dressing for action in 12 games due to suspensions. Clarkson's futility is exacerbated by the fact the Leafs, once firmly entrenched in a playoff position, are tumbling while several teams, including the Senators, take aim. As if all of the above weren't painful enough to Leafs fans, there is this other saline solution in the wound: winger Clarke MacArthur, run out of town on a rail by Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, has been one of the NHL's best 2013 free agent signings, producing 11 goals and 25 points for the Senators prior to Wednesday's game in New Jersey. Moreover, MacArthur has added an important veteran presence following the departures of captain Daniel Alfredsson and defenceman Sergei Gonchar.
Clarkson seemed to make a better contribution as a cheerleader. During his 10-game suspension to start the season, the Leafs were 7-3-0. Their record since: 10-13-3. The season is young, but getting old, fast.
Although no one foresaw Clarkson starting his Leafs career with a lengthy suspension, it didn't take a forensic accountant to figure out on July 5 that the Leafs were paying too much, too long, for a player who had earned a nice contract but was hardly an elite NHL forward.
Now, think about what kind of player Clarkson might have been for the Senators. Would he have been a better fit here? While the organization has to be thrilled at not being on the hook for seven years of Clarkson at $5.25 million per, Ottawa management saw a different role for Clarkson, more in keeping with the player he was with the Devils. That is, a physical, grinding, character player fitting in somewhere on the top three lines but not counted on to be a top scorer. The Senators already have offensive players in Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris, MacArthur and Erik Karlsson. They could use the guy Clarkson was in New Jersey for several years, when he was paid appropriately. He can't be that guy anymore, because he's too busy trying to be a $5-million guy he has no business being. For No. 71, expectations have changed.
Make no mistake, Senators general manager Bryan Murray wanted Clarkson badly, once joking that he lost out because Clarkson's old man had a Maple Leafs licence plate. Clarkson grew up in Toronto and was a Leafs fan himself as a boy.
Earlier this season, when the Senators were in Toronto for a game against the Leafs, I spoke to Clarkson about the pitch from the Senators.
"It was probably the hardest decision I've had to make in my career," said Clarkson, who was impressed by Ottawa's ownership, management and coaching. "I liked the vibe there, but the more I thought about it, the chance to come home and be near family and friends - that was part of the decision we made," Clarkson said.
In retrospect, he would have had a gentler transition in Ottawa, facing a fraction of the pressure and scrutiny he gets in the Centre of the Universe. For the Senators, Clarkson was the big fish that got away. Now that he's a Maple Leaf mired in a mess, one wonders if this won't be a catch-and-release situation. In other words, Clarkson could be trade bait if there's anyone biting on the long contract - that string attached.
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