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Maple Leafs' Clarkson acquisition inches them closer to having Marner in the lineup to start the season

By placing David Clarkson and Nathan Horton on long-term injured reserve, the Maple Leafs can receive upwards of $10-million in cap relief, and that financial flexibility should allow them to get restricted free agent Mitch Marner signed and in the lineup.

When you’re a big spender the way the Toronto Maple Leafs are, sometimes you have to get creative. And when the NHL’s vaunted hard salary cap system allows you to manipulate the system, you take full advantage of your financial might and you do it.

Consider this. Largely because of salary cap machinations, David Clarkson is a more coveted player now than he was when he was a 30-goal scorer for the New Jersey Devils. Since the trade deadline four years ago, he’s been traded twice and picked up in an expansion draft, despite the fact he’s played only 26 games, scored just four points and had to essentially retire with a chronic back injury. It’s a shame his contract has only one more year on it, otherwise the Seattle expansion team would be all over him.

Since his hugely disappointing tenure with the Leafs, Clarkson has: 1. Helped the Columbus Blue Jackets get out from under the contract of Nathan Horton, one that wasn’t insured; 2. Given the Vegas Golden Knights another first-round pick, which they used to trade up in the draft and take Nick Suzuki, whom they moved to the Montreal Canadiens to get Max Pacioretty. There was also that unintended consequence that prompted them to select William Karlsson, which resulted in a 40-goal season and a deal that blew up in the face of the Blue Jackets; and, 3. As of now, almost certainly helped the Maple Leafs to extricate themselves out of a salary cap jam of their own.

It boggles the mind that the Leafs now have both Clarkson and Horton, the two players who started all this in the first place. It’s actually a pretty good deal for the Leafs, since Clarkson’s $2.25 million signing bonus was paid out July 1, leaving the Leafs on the hook for only $1 million, almost all of which will be paid by insurance.

And what do they get in return? Well, they rid themselves of a goalie in Garret Sparks who clearly had no future in the organization and who will almost certainly be replaced by Michael Neuvirth this coming season. But more importantly, GM Kyle Dubas has found a way to buy himself about $1.5 million more in cap space to either sign restricted free agent Mitch Marner or buffer himself against an offer sheet for Marner. The acquisition of Clarkson, combined with the Horton contract, give the Maple Leafs $10.55 million in cap relief. With Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott almost certain to start the season on the long-term injured reserve, that adds another $3 million in cap relief in the short-term. Hyman and Dermott will eventually return to the lineup, of course, but both Horton and Clarkson have played their last games as NHLers.

That should give the Leafs enough to absorb the cap hit that Marner will require, likely on a three-to-five-year deal. And unless something crazy happens with an offer sheet, the Leafs will likely have the ability to match anything offered to Marner, which makes it that much less likely an offer sheet will be coming his way. Even if a team waits until just before the season to offer sheet him, the Leafs will have the ability to take on the contract and be cap compliant when the puck drops.

This is very good news for both the Leafs and Marner. In fact, it pretty much paves the way for a Marner deal to be made. That doesn’t necessarily mean a deal is going to be struck anytime soon, but the main goal for both Marner and the Leafs should be for him to be ready to step on the ice on the first day of training camp. History has revealed time and again that players coming off entry-level deals who miss training camp and or a significant part of their fourth pro season spend much of that year catching up to their peers and it becomes almost a lost year at a very crucial time in their development. The Leafs will want to avoid this at all costs, given the way the William Nylander saga played out last season. And Marner, who is entitled to ask whatever he feels he’s worth, wants to play and compete and be part of the plan from the first day.

Dubas has indeed had to move a good number of shells around to make this happen, but it looks as though he and the Leafs have dodged a potentially disastrous situation going into this season. He’ll likely have to do it all over again next summer, but constantly being jeopardized by the salary cap is simply an accepted occupational hazard when you have a competitive roster.

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