Analysis: Leafs Retain Bozak, Acquire Clarkson

The Toronto Maple Leafs have re-signed Tyler Bozak to a five-year, $21-million contract and locked up free agent David Clarkson for seven years at $36.75-million.

General manager Dave Nonis made it clear that he thought Bozak was a key piece in the Leafs finally ending their playoff drought. While most assumed the 27-year-old would find a home elsewhere, the Leafs think they found a top-six centre they can rely on for five years.

But Bozak’s production as a first-line centre is nothing impressive, and his lack of defensive upside makes this move more difficult to digest. Consider that Bozak ranked 212th in Points/60 (production rate) last season.  His most common linemates, Phil Kessel and James van Riesmdyk, ranked 24th and 63rd respectively. Bozak essentially rode the coattails of his linemates and reaped the benefits.

Heading into the off-season, the Leafs’ primary needs were to upgrade its holes on defence and up the middle. As of today, that remains unchanged. The acquisition of Dave Bolland should help the bottom-six, but the Leafs require a top-six centre capable of driving possession or, at the very least, producing an adequate amount of points on the top line.

Prior to last season, Mikhail Grabovski had been a dependable two-way centre capable of producing in the 50-point range while facing top lines. Head coach Randy Carlyle shifted his role and used him as a shutdown centre, effectively neutering his offensive production. Grabovski actually ranked ahead of Bozak in Points/60 last season at 144th overall. The season prior, Grabovski ranked 65th in the category while Bozak was 188th. In the two seasons prior to 2013, Grabovski accumulated 109 points while Bozak had 79. The evidence is endless and it’s difficult to understand how the Leafs’ management came to the conclusion that Bozak is superior to Grabovski. In any case, the upside to the deal is that Phil Kessel, who is set to become a unrestricted free agent next summer, will likely re-sign on a long term deal to continue playing with his good friend.

Moving along, the Leafs locked up Clarkson for seven years with an annual salary of $5.25-million. Considering the initial reports of Clarkson seeking upwards of $6-million, it could have been worse. The 29-year-old is effective in terms of puck possession, an area of need for the Leafs, but he also played sheltered minutes in New Jersey. His goal-scoring ability and willingness to mix it up should make him a fan favourite in Toronto. But the question is how long he performs as a $5.25-million player before his inevitable decline? He reached a career-high 46 points in the 2011-12 campaign, but it’s unreasonable to expect much more from him considering his age and the generous minutes he had played. Had Clarkson signed on a shorter term the signing would have provided the Leafs with financial security, but retaining his cap hit until he’s 37 years old is a tough pill to swallow. The move also shores up the Leafs’ previously skeletal right wing position, but the loss of Clarke MacArthur, to the Ottawa Senators no less, means Nonis still has some work to do there.

After today’s activity, the Leafs now have $14.3-million in cap space with six restricted free agents to sign (Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, Mark Fraser, and Jonathan Bernier). Assuming those six command the majority of that, Nonis will have to get creative if he hopes to upgrade on defence and on the wings.