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Breaking Down the Trade: Clarkson for Horton

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In some ways, it looks good. In other ways, it looks bad. Let's look at all of the angles.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

David Clarkson for Nathan Horton.

Boom.

Wow.

On the surface, both teams have reason to be happy about this move. However, the potential downside is far worse for the Blue Jackets than it is for the Maple Leafs in this writer's opinion. Here's why.

To really evaluate this trade, we have to think of it as two separate trades, in reality: The Business Trade, and The Hockey Trade.

The Business Trade

On one hand, there's the business standpoint, which was clearly the driver in the short term for both clubs. This trade is proof that, no matter how "un-tradeable" a contract seems in a vacuum, there's really no such thing. In that regard, for Columbus and for Toronto, this trade makes sense from a purely financial standpoint. The Maple Leafs get some cap relief as they begin their complete gut-job. The salaries are identical, but Nathan Horton may never play again, and in fact the Leafs would probably prefer that. The second they get up to the salary cap, they simply invoke Long Term Injured Reserve, and POOF, he's gone from their salary cap. They still pay him his money, but it immediately gives them cap relief for the next five years.

Likewise, for Columbus, they were stuck paying Nathan Horton his contract no matter what, thanks to the revelation that his contract was not insured. I'm not here to debate the wisdom of signing that contract without insurance (my gut says "not wise") because I'm not a business major who dabbles in insurance underwriting. And, in some ways, having that argument is like having a hangover and blaming the food you're eating for breakfast for making you sick. The damage was done long ago.

So, Toronto and Columbus both are still paying the exact same amount of money they were paying before: however, they both get something for their money now that they weren't getting yesterday: cap relief for Toronto, and an actual hockey player for Columbus. In that regard, both teams did a great job swapping out their problems for "solutions".

But, for Columbus, there's a whole other aspect to this.

The Hockey Trade

This is where it gets muddy. For Toronto, it's open and shut: there is no hockey aspect to this trade. They're rebuilding. They got salary cap relief, and they traded a player who was underperforming for a player who will never play for them. They are bad and are planning on scorching the earth. There's no hockey down-side to the deal.

For Columbus, there's a lot more happening. On one hand, they get an actual hockey player--and one who has had some level of success in league previously in his career--for the money they were previously paying to a player who was never going to play for them again. On the surface and in a vacuum, that's a win.

But, what kind of player are they getting? At their peaks, they're getting a player not as good as the one they gave up. In real-world terms, they're getting a player who will play, but who has struggled mightily under the expectations of the contract he signed. He isn't the first, and won't be the last, to do that.

Is he a hockey black hole? Is he a Balrog? It's hard to argue that he hasn't been a colossal failure in Toronto in the context of the contract he signed and the expectations coming in. But, that's not on us, Columbus. Let's try to figure out what kind of player he MIGHT be, assuming he gets a fresh(ish) start here in Columbus. To do that, we HAVE to take the contract out of it. After all, Columbus is paying the money either way; they've chosen to pay it to a guy who can play.

So, how well can he play?

Clarkson's played 544 NHL games, and has scored 112 goals (0.21 gpg) and added 84 assists (0.36 ppg). That said, his last two years in Toronto have been abysmal, to the tune of 15 goals and 11 assists in 118 games. That's 0.13 gpg and 0.22 ppg, which are obviously big departures from his career averages.

But, maybe in looking at that, we can also look at the inverse: before he got to the giant sucking sound that is the Maple Leafs, he had 97 goals and 73 assists in 426 games with New Jersey, good for 0.23 gpg and 0.40 ppg. Both of those are at or above his career averages.

This begs the question: is Clarkson bad, or is Toronto bad?

There's no arguing Clarkson's numbers with the Leafs: based on his contract, they're B-A-D bad. But, the glimmer of hope for Columbus is that we offer him a fresh start, and a system most likely more suited to his strengths. Let's dig a little deeper.

During the past two seasons, Toronto has posted THE SECOND WORST Even Strength CorsiFor numbers in the league. In Clarkson's first season there, the ENTIRE TEAM had an EV CorsiFor% of 42.8%. THAT IS HORRIFIC. It improved this season, but not by much: so far at EV, their CorsiFor% is 46.3%. Their total over that span? 44.3%. Only Buffalo has been worse.

By comparison, Columbus has been an aggregate 48.6% over that span. Not a ton better, but better none-the-less. More importantly, when the team is healthy and playing the way we know they can, they are much better: to wit, in the '13-'14 season, Columbus sported an EV CorsiFor% of 50.0%.

In Clarkson's first full season there, no Toronto forward who played more than 50 games had an EV CorsiOn better than -10.74. Clarkson's was -17.16, but goal scorers like Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul weren't much better, at -12.19 and -15.65 respectively. This season, the team numbers are slightly better overall (Nazem Kadri got to a postive CorsiOn!!), and Clarkson's has been much better at -9.44. He's scored 10 goals this season, too, so it's not like he's a giant black hole. He's merely a slightly more stinky turd on top of a giant pile of crap up in Toronto.

For whatever reason, he's become Public Enemy #1 for it. One can only assume it's because of his contract. But, we don't care about his contract in the here-and-now, because it was already a sunk cost for us.

Let's go back and look at his New Jersey days, though. It's safe to argue that New Jersey's style of play is a better comparison to the Jackets, in my opinion.

Clarkson became an every day player in New Jersey beginning in the fall of 2007. From that point until he left as a free agent, the Devils were a strong even strength possession team, boasting an EV CorsiFor% of 52.1%, which was good for sixth-best in the league. Similarly, Clarkson was a fairly strong possession player. His six full seasons in New Jersey produced the following EV CorsiFor% for Clarkson:

Season EV CorsiFor% EV CorsiOn EV Goals EV Points
'07-'08 50.5% 0.84 8 19
'08-'09 50.0% 0.56 13 25
'09-'10 46.3% -6.94 6 16
'10-'11 51.9% 3.74 11 16
'11-'12 51.0% 2.70 18 26
'12-'13 61.2% 23.03 8 14


It should be noted that Clarkson missed almost half of the '09-'10 season due to injury. During Clarkson's final three years in New Jersey, he was very much a driver of possession, especially (of course) in his contract year. He also scored 57 goals in those last three combined seasons.

In short, David Clarkson was NOT a terrible hockey player before he went to Toronto.

He may never get back to those levels, but suffice it to say he was also on some very solid teams in New Jersey before signing in Toronto. So, is Columbus getting a guy who could help them in their middle six like the player who played six seasons in New Jersey, or is he getting the completely ruined shell of that player spat out by Toronto yesterday?

There's no way of knowing, for sure. And, that's where the risk comes in for Columbus. We can look at the player devoid of his contract because of the "sunk cost" nature of it, but then again we can't. Clarkson has a no-movement clause, so for better or worse he's on our roster for the next five seasons after this one.

And that's where the downside comes in: suppose Clarkson is completely unsalvageable. While we would be paying the money either way, Horton would NOT have been playing, and thus wouldn't have been eating up a roster spot AND the corresponding salary cap space. The Jackets, much like Toronto, could simply LTIR Horton to free up the cap space.

With the glut of offensive prospects that are coming in the pipeline, Clarkson becomes a giant $5.25 million road block to a roster spot for someone like Sonny Milano--or Marko Dano or Josh Anderson or Oliver Bjorkstrand or someone we haven't even drafted yet--if he turns out to be completely done as a helpful player. At best, he becomes a $5.25 million bottom six guy, which is still a gross misallocation of resources.

So, while the argument of "we're paying the money regardless!" works today and in the near-term, it may not work in the long term--especially if Clarkson continues to flounder in a new setting. And that is the risk for Columbus: with Horton's contract, you were paying the money, but you knew exactly what you were getting for the next five years: an open roster spot to be filled by someone else of your choosing, be it a young player coming up and another signee. With Clarkson, we don't know what we're getting, both now and four or five years from now when there will be plenty of contenders coming up for that roster spot.

Think of it this way: five years from now, if there's no room for Josh Anderson because we're stuck paying Clarkson to play on the fourth line, even that in my eyes is a loss.

Summary

Today, this trade makes business sense for both teams. They don't save any money in any real terms, but Toronto gets salary cap relief and Columbus gets actual production for their money.

Tomorrow, well, we'll have to see. What kind of production will the Jackets get for that money? Suffice it to say that, unless Clarkson literally starts shooting pucks into his own net, it will be more than what they got from Horton. That's a small win. It also has the potential to be a bigger win if Clarkson can finally take a breath, rediscover even a moderate amount of what he showed in New Jersey, and become a 15-20 goal guy again for Columbus.

Five years from now? Anybody's guess. If Clarkson rejuvenates his career, Columbus will have won long-term. If he's serviceable, the Jackets still win. If he bombs and ends up being a giant road-block for a younger, better player, Columbus loses.

The reason I think Columbus has more to lose over the entirety of this trade is that Toronto has basically nothing left to lose. They pay Horton not to play, they get LTIR relief if they spend to the cap, and that's it. Columbus gets something for their investment, but that something could be a help or a hinderance. The long-term down-side is much worse in that regard.

BUT

Jackets fan, it's not the best trade ever, but it's not THAT bad. Ignore the braying of the jackasses from Toronto who are completely oblivious to how disgusting their team has been the past two seasons and look at it as objectively as possible. For Columbus to completely lose this trade, a lot of additional bad things would have to happen. We have no way of knowing if those things will happen, so let's just wait and see before we completely go off the deep end.