Clarkson-for-Horton trade a legal, and brilliant, circumvention of the salary cap

Ken Campbell
Nathan Horton  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Nathan Horton (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

So much for the untradeable player with the unmovable contract. That species of player, thought to be alive and well in the salary cap era, does not exist. In fact, he never has because GMs such as David Nonis and Jarmo Kekalainen can cook up deals like the one they did Thursday afternoon.

In swapping the ill-suited and much maligned David Clarkson for the seriously and likely permanently injured Nathan Horton, Nonis and Kekalainen conspired to help each other out of contractual straitjackets that were paralyzing their rosters. This deal was so much more than just swapping one bad contract for another one.

And it’s the kind of deal the salary cap and all the machinations the owners have tried to put in place since the lockout in 2004-05 have been trying to prevent. The salary cap, which causes more problems than it solves in your correspondent’s humble opinion, was supposed to prevent teams from buying their way out of their mistakes. It was supposed to take away that competitive advantage that the big-revenue teams used to enjoy.

But lo and behold, what we have here is legal circumvention of the salary. Brilliant, innovative and clever legal circumvention of the salary cap, but circumvention nonetheless. Clarkson and Horton have almost identical contracts in terms of money and term and trading one for the other cures a lot of ills for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets.

For the Maple Leafs, it gets them out from under one of the worst contracts in league history. The Leafs envisioned great things when they signed Clarkson two summers ago to his seven-year, $36.75 million deal, which was probably their first mistake. Clarkson did not change as a player. He was always flawed in terms of hockey sense and benefitted from a great situation in New Jersey, playing on the first power-play unit and playing give-and-go with Ilya Kovalchuk. What changed the moment Clarkson signed that deal were expectations. They could not have been reached even if Clarkson had been a decent player in Toronto. The fact he failed so badly made it even worse.

But now the Leafs will pay Horton $5.3 million for the next five years despite the fact he will almost certainly never, ever play a game or even practice with him. He will stay on the long-term injury reserve list and the Leafs will be able to replace his salary on the roster with other players. Yes, the Leafs will be spending $5.3 million more on players than the salary cap allows, but money is never an issue for this organization.

“The money lined up which was a big part of it,” said Toronto general manager Dave Nonis. “From Columbus’s standpoint they were looking to get a player in for that money and we get a player back, who if he can ever come back is an elite player. In the event he can’t then we have created some cap space.”

The money lining up was not a “big part of it.” The money lining up was all of it. There are only a handful of teams that could make a deal like that one, and they’re all big-money teams for which paying players to not play for them is not a factor. And that is where the big-revenue teams still have an enormous advantage over their competitors. The trade does not violate the letter of the collective bargaining agreement, but it does violate the spirit of it. NHL teams, the same ones who come up with ways to tighten the system and seem more than willing to shut the league down to do so, continue to amaze by turning around and figuring out ways to beat that same system. (That’s likely why Nonis was talking about Horton and saying the Leafs will get an elite player if Horton ever plays again, when he knows the chances of that happening are close to zero.)

The NHL’s Central Registry approved the trade, but I’m willing to bet my last dollar that those who occupy the big offices at the league’s head office in Manhattan are apoplectic about this deal. Because Nonis and Kekalainen have set a precedent that other teams will be sure to follow.

For the Blue Jackets, on the other hand, the $5.3 million they were paying Horton was very real money that was crippling them regardless of how much they were spending. Now they at least get someone who can contribute for the same money and are banking that a change of scenery will coax better play out of Clarkson. And it probably will.

Problem solved for both GMs. It might not be enough to save Nonis’s job beyond this season, but it will certainly improve his legacy.