It was the first day of NHL free agency when David Clarkson
was introduced as the newest member of the Maple Leafs.
Accompanied by his entire family, Clarkson signed a seven-year deal to play for his hometown team. It was a dream come true at the time. What followed was anything but.
In the pre-season, Clarkson was in a rush to defend the honour of his teammate Phil Kessel, who got into a fight with John Scott of the Buffalo Sabres. Clarkson would pay for his transgressions: He was suspended for the first 10 games of the season for jumping over the boards to join a fight.
In 2013, Clarkson made his regular season debut against the team that acquired him in 2015 - he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Nathan Horton on Thursday.
“Sometimes players, for whatever reason, don’t fit in a certain city or a certain organization,” said Leafs GM Dave Nonis prior to the Leafs hosting the Philadelphia Flyers. “I believe in David, I think he’s going to go over there and play well. I think he’s going to go fit in with that group and have the impact there that we had hoped he would have here.”
Both Clarkson and Horton signed identical deals in the offseason of 2013, and both have had their fair share of trouble.
In Horton’s case, he suffered a back injury midway through last season, and hasn’t played in an NHL game since. There are still many questions as to if he will ever play again.
“If he does turn out to play, then Nathan is a world class player, he’s been an elite player, he’s won a cup, he’s won a lot of things,” said Nonis. “If that ever happened (being able to play again), that would be great. And if it doesn’t happen, we’re not in any worse situation financially, plus we have the cap space available going forward."
After a disappointing 2013-14, Clarkson appeared to find his game and more importantly, his role with the Maple Leafs. But the team began to struggle, and Clarkson found himself in a situation much like those around him. With an eye on the future, changes had to be made and this trade became one of them.
“It didn’t have to happen (right now) but once we discussed it and it made sense we figured what was the reason to wait,” Nonis said. "To be fair to David, when I did talk to Pat Morris, we discussed for him, to get to his new team and start playing there and getting some games under his belt, as opposed to getting there in the summer and starting anew in training camp. It was beneficial to him so that was another big part of it.”
The Maple Leafs have been busy, and certainly this move was unexpected. Neither team is a “buyer” going into Monday’s trade deadline. Ultimately, it came down to doing what was right for all sides involved.
In the end, Clarkson gets a much needed reset, one he agreed to by waiving his no-movement clause. And the Leafs can move forward as they continue to build for next season and beyond.
“We need to make some changes and that’s apparent,” Nonis added. “We have some good players that maybe haven’t played to their capabilities this season and haven’t had the years that we need them to have, but they are good players. It doesn’t mean we’re going to fire sale people out. We’re not going to make moves just to clean the roster out. We need to get value.”
While he was much maligned, Clarkson did turn down more money from other teams to play for his hometown team. But it's all part of trying to find the right mix, something the Leafs are figuring out as they continue to rebuild.