It appears to be the great, unkillable contract.
And the Toronto Maple Leafs gleefully signed all seven years and $36.75-million of it with free agent David Clarkson last summer.
You really don’t have to look much further than a few headlines at various media sources this week to know how the deal has turned out, as talk of a buyout has quickly spread online as the season winds down.
One such report out of New Jersey, where Clarkson played the first seven years of his career, read “Should the Devils go after Clarkson if the Leafs buy out his contract?”
Another local report said there would be “serious discussions” by Leafs management over whether to dump the deal.
With many players in Clarkson’s situation, that would be a logical conversation, too. His goal in Tuesday’s win over the Calgary Flames was just his fifth of the season after 55 games, and his ice time has dwindled as coach Randy Carlyle has struggled to find a fit for him in the lineup.
In a season where much has gone wrong, Clarkson’s contract has been Toronto’s biggest catastrophe.
But even if the Leafs wanted to take the drastic step of buying out the last six years of it, they almost certainly won’t.
Because of the way the deal is structured – with more than 75 per cent of the money in irrevocable signing bonuses – Clarkson has the rare indestructible contract, one that guarantees him the vast majority of his money no matter what.
The only part of the deal the Leafs can really buy out is one-third of the $8-million in remaining base salary, meaning Clarkson would receive all but $2.7-million (or 8 per cent) of the contract, and Toronto would have an enormous amount of dead money on its cap.
Clarkson also has the benefit of a no-movement clause, so he cannot be sent to the minors, and a no-trade clause that allows him to dictate which 14 teams he can be traded to.
“There’s no way they buy him out,” a source familiar with the contract’s language said. “You can do it, but it’s nonsensical,” because of how little cap relief it would give.
Clarkson’s is not the first contract to have specific stipulations in it to protect signing bonuses. Bobby Holik, Wade Redden and Vinny Lecavalier all received their bonuses in full when they were paid out using compliance buyouts in the last decade.
The difference with their buyouts, however, is that they came in windows after lockouts, when teams were allowed to buy out players with no cap penalty.
The Leafs are familiar with that process after using their two compliance buyouts last summer to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski and Mike Komisarek, but because Clarkson’s deal was signed after the new collective agreement, he wouldn’t have been an eligible candidate for one of those.
The Lecavalier example is perhaps the most instructive. The Tampa Bay Lightning bought out the final seven years of their captain’s deal for the hefty sum of $33-million last June, and $8-million of that was made up of the type of untouchable signing bonuses Clarkson has.
The difference with Clarkson is in how tiny the base salary is on his contract, a move that would have been made by his agent solely for the purpose of protecting him from a buyout.
The league hasn’t frowned on these deals, as they remain a cap headache no matter what and only really penalize the team that signs them.
“It depends on the language in the contract,” one agent not involved in the situation explained. “They must have bulletproof language in there stating the signing bonus is strictly an inducement to enter into contract and not considered salary.”
Without the buyout option, the Leafs only choices with Clarkson will be to either live with the contract until 2020 and try to rehabilitate him, or attempt to trade him, likely in a deal that retains some salary.
With both captain Dion Phaneuf and leading scorer Phil Kessel’s new contracts (a $15-million cap hit combined) coming on the books next season, Toronto’s cap situation is expected to be tight this summer. After signing their various restricted free agents, the Leafs will have something in the neighbourhood of $12-million left and will need to either re-sign or find replacements for forwards Nikolai Kulemin, Mason Raymond, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement and Troy Bodie.
An upgrade on the blueline is another longstanding need that will take significant cash to fulfill properly.
As much as Clarkson has hurt the Leafs this season in producing a career-low 11 points in the first year of his deal, the lasting negative impact of the contract may well be felt in the offseason. The fact that his deal is so substantial and difficult to get rid of could ultimately cost Toronto other useful players on the roster, and make general manager Dave Nonis’s job much more challenging.
It stands as just the latest example of the dangers of free agency, something the Leafs franchise already knows all too well.
“It’s no secret. It’s been tough,” Clarkson said. “Obviously personally I’m not happy with the season. I hold myself accountable – I’m someone that’s got to be better.”
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