David Clarkson’s new seven-year, $36.75 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs came under considerable scorn from most pundits and bloggers.
The Globe & Mail’s James Mirtle and blogger Tyler Dellow did a great job breaking down the issues with Clarkson’s new deal. Put simply, the Leafs are investing too much for too long in a player who has only one 30-goal, 40-point season on his resume.
At the risk of piling on, I can’t resist adding my own critique of Clarkson’s contract.
First, this isn’t a criticism of Clarkson personality, character, or caliber of play. This also isn’t based on “jealousy” or “envy” of the Leafs winning the bidding for Clarkson’s services. Pointing out the obvious flaws/potential problems in Clarkson’s contract isn’t engaging in Leafs bashing, though I realize some pundits and bloggers have used the opportunity to do so.
This little exercise is merely to explain the obvious: it’s a bad contract which could have far-reaching consequences for Clarkson, the Leafs, and the next round of NHL CBA negotiations.
Clarkson is a physical, energetic forward who can play either wing and has a decent scoring touch. His aggressively pesky style, however, does result in undisciplined play and bad penalties.
On his last contract, Clarkson’s average cap hit was just over $2.66 million on a three-year deal, earning $3 million per season in actual salary in the last two years of that contract.
It’s understandable why he tested this summer’s weak free agent market, knowing he could earn considerably more than what his former club, the New Jersey Devils, could offer. He also cannot be faulted for accepting the rich offer he received from the Leafs.
A sensible contract for Clarkson would’ve been three years at around $3.75 million per season. Entering this year’s free agent period, I expected the high-end offer would be four-five years at $4 million per. Turns out I was well off the mark with that guess.
Clarkson’s deal is worth an average annual cap hit of $5.25 million. It is structured, however, so that he’ll make $4.5 million to start in year one, rising to $4.75 million in year two and $5.5 million in year three, topping out at $7 million per season in years four and five, dropping to $4.75 million in year six and to $3.25 million in year seven.
This is well within the new rules for term and salary variance, but that’s not the problem. It’s the fact an average NHL player like Clarkson has a seven-year contract with a $5.25 million annual cap hit, in which he’ll pull in $7 million per season in real salary at the midpoint.
Sure, Clarkson’s the type of energetic, physical forward every team loves to have on its roster, but he’s just not worth that contract.
For the Leafs to get long-term value out of this contract, Clarkson must either score thirty goals or exceed 40 points in five of the deal’s seven years. As Mirtle noted in his column, Clarkson is a type of player whose best years are often behind them when they reach their thirties. Clarkson will turn 30 next March.
This contract also sets what could be an impossibly high bar of expectations for Clarkson. Some see him as a poor man’s version of the great Leafs captain Wendel Clark. That’s as may be, but the burden which comes with that hype and that contract could be crushing, especially if Clarkson struggles to meet expectations.
If he fails, that contract will be used as a cudgel to bludgeon him daily in mainstream and social media. If the Leafs struggle, he’ll be singled out as the poster child for all that’s wrong with the roster, as well as the management which signed him.
A theory has Leafs GM Dave Nonis being deliberately shortsighted with the Clarkson deal, suggesting Nonis only cares how well the winger plays in the early years of the deal, as he probably won’t be Leafs GM at the back end of the contract.
Granted, the average shelf life in recent years of Leafs general managers is around four years, but I believe Nonis is betting on the salary cap steadily rising over the course of this CBA, as it did during the previous one.
Conservative estimates suggest the salary cap could reach $90 million in the final season (2021-22) of the current CBA. Optimists believe it could reach that figure much earlier, perhaps by year six.
Should the cap keep rising over the course of Clarkson’s deal, his $5.25 million cap hit under an $80-$90 million ceiling won’t seem as extreme as it currently does under a $64.3 million ceiling.
The Leafs -the richest franchise in the NHL – are a cap team and always will be. They can afford overpaying a player like Clarkson during the length of this CBA (provided they don’t make too many similar signings over that period) and still have enough cash to re-sign their stars (hello there, Phil Kessel) to expensive, long-term deals.
Yes, they also overpaid Tyler Bozak (five years at $4.2 million per), but that deal isn’t as bad as the Clarkson contract. In Bozak, they have an otherwise average center who has terrific chemistry with Kessel, which could provide enticement for their top scorer to re-sign before his UFA eligibility next summer.
If Clarkson helps the Leafs become a Stanley Cup contender over the next three years, Nonis can justify the overpayment. Should the Leafs end their lengthy Stanley Cup drought over that period, Toronto fans and pundits will forgive Nonis’ largesse.
Of greater concern, however, is the effect the Clarkson contract will have upon future contract negotiations for similar players around the league. A winger considered at best a marginal second-liner has a contract with Toronto which at its mid-point will pay him $7 million per season in real salary for two years.
One pundit, upon hearing of the Clarkson signing, called the contract “Patient Zero” for the next NHL labor war. It will surely be used as a benchmark for comparable free agents over the course of this CBA.
Overpaying second-and third-tier talent is nothing new in the NHL during free agency. It’s been going on since the end of the first NHL lockout nearly 20 years ago, and the Leafs weren’t the only team to do it.
It’s obvious the recent lockout, just like the last one, was never really about imposing controls on payroll, but rather squeezing the players for more of their share of hockey-related revenue.
Sure, there’s now a cap on contract lengths and salary variance, but its done nothing to make general managers spend more responsibly, especially in a free agent market as weak as this year’s.
The Clarkson contract merely demonstrates the fact NHL general managers (especially those on rich teams with cap space to burn) will always overpay for free agent talent, regardless of the restrictions on on payroll, individual salary, term and salary variance. They just can’t help themselves.