The Toronto Maple Leafs have acquired the contract of retired forward David Clarkson from the Vegas Golden Knights. The deal will see Garret Sparks go to the Golden Knights while Toronto will also receive a 2020 fourth-round pick. Clarkson has one year remaining on his contract and carries a $5.25MM cap hit. He will spend the year on long-term injured reserve. With the extra space, the Golden Knights have re-signed Deryk Engelland to a one-year $700K contract that also includes up to $800K in performance bonuses.
A deal like this appears confusing on the surface, given Toronto’s cap crunch and the fact that they still need to sign Mitch Marner. The most likely reason for it though is that the team is already planning on going deep into LTIR with Nathan Horton’s contract (and perhaps Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott who are both on the shelf to start the year following various surgeries) and can use the Clarkson deal to go even further. This is not necessarily the case for the Golden Knights, who were well over the cap before moving Clarkson and needed to shed salary before the end of the offseason. Technically the Maple Leafs could wait until the first day of the season to sign Marner, avoiding offseason LTIR (which has a slightly different calculation for how much is added to the cap ceiling) in order to open enough room. Clarkson and Horton have a combined $10.55MM cap hit which, depending on how close the Maple Leafs can get their roster to the current $81.5MM salary cap ceiling, would be added on top to give them a new ceiling of ~$92MM.
Clarkson only has $1MM of actual salary remaining on his contract, but was making things much more difficult for the Golden Knights as they approach the season. If they can avoid it, it is almost always better for a team to not be using long-term injured reserve space as it can cause huge roster issues if you get into injury trouble and has the potential to cause cap overages from performance bonuses. By moving Clarkson, the Golden Knights are actually now projected to be a little more than $1MM under the cap ceiling, though they still have Nikita Gusev to sign (or trade).
Vegas also adds Sparks in the deal, giving the team a legitimate third (or perhaps second) option in net behind Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban. The former AHL Goaltender of the Year has just a $750K one-way contract, making him more than affordable if the team decides Subban is not up to the task or someone suffers an injury. Sparks has played in 37 NHL games, recording an .898 save percentage. His numbers in the minor leagues though are spectacular, meaning he may have more to give at the highest level. The 26-year old goaltender will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and the Maple Leafs had seemingly moved on by re-signing Michael Hutchinson and bringing in Michal Neuvirth on a professional tryout.
Interestingly, a deal like this may not only open up enough room for Marner to sign. Depending on what the Maple Leafs do, they may be able to clear enough space to fit in Jake Gardiner, who remains unsigned despite coming into the offseason as arguably the best defenseman in unrestricted free agency. Gardiner has indicated his desire to stay if possible, though obviously nothing is official at this point.
Basically, the Maple Leafs admitted to themselves that they would need to use long-term injured reserve once again this season and have pushed even more chips to the middle. This kind of a move is only possible because Auston Matthews has now graduated out of his entry-level deal, which brought with it the opportunity for millions of dollars in performance bonuses. It’s important to note though that this is not just free cap space, but an intricate transaction that requires the team to be very careful with how they use their roster throughout the season. The Maple Leafs can afford to do things like this because of the organization’s financial might, an advantage some other teams do not have.