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Maple Leafs open wallet, add Clarkson, re-sign Bozak

By Tyler Hunt     Jul 6, 2013 in Sports
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis made his presence felt early into the start of the NHL's free agency period, inking winger David Clarkson to a seven-year deal worth $36.75 million, and re-signing centre Tyler Bozak to a five-year extension.
As free agency opened up at noon yesterday (four days late thanks to the lockout), there was plenty of movement around the league as teams continue to try to adjust their rosters and salary structure to fit under the new collective bargaining agreement.
It didn't take long for the first few signings to trickle in, as the likes of Andrew Ference, Ray Emery and — the big shocker of the day — Daniel Alfredsson, all found new homes within the first 20 minutes of the window opening.
One of the most coveted names going into the summer was David Clarkson, who worked his way up to the NHL after going undrafted in both junior and pro, only to score 30 goals in 2011-12 and become a valuable power-forward for the New Jersey Devils (who happened to reach the Stanley Cup Final that year).
After receiving interest from both the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators, Clarkson opted to sign with the team he grew up cheering for, inking a seven-year deal with Toronto that will pay him an average-annual salary of $5.25 million into the 2019-20 season.
"I used to pretend I was Wendel Clark as a kid," Clarkson told TSN 1050's Dave Naylor on TSN Drive. "I ran around my living room and that's what I did. I played mini-sticks and this team was always something close to my heart."
It is no doubt an expensive price for the Leafs to pay for a winger who has hit the 40-point mark just once in his career. Clarkson is already 29, and struggled to keep up his goal-scoring numbers after beginning the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season on an absolutely torrid pace.
But Leafs GM Dave Nonis saw an opportunity to upgrade the club's top-six, and it took a seven-year deal to get Clarkson to jump on-board. That contract extends the gritty winger until he is 36, and with the market for a productive power forward in today's NHL, it was the price of doing business for the Maple Leafs.
“As much as I think David was wanting to come to Toronto, I'm pretty certain if I tried to go 5 or 6 years we wouldn't be standing here right now," Nonis told reporters Friday afternoon after the initial rush of signings died down.
"If David Clarkson doesn’t score 30 goals in a Leaf uniform, but provides all the other things that we know he’s going to provide we’re pretty comfortable we’re a better team."
In fact, Clarkson had other offers from Edmonton and Ottawa, and admitted to turning down more money to return home and play in front of friends and family, in the uniform he grew up wearing to Leafs games as a fan.
It's an expensive move, but a significant one on a team that lacks size and toughness among their top-nine forwards. Clarkson will provide an edge, and has a knack for scoring the mystical "dirty goals" that are so valuable to a team that lacks grit and net presence. He fits in well on a line with Nazem Kadri and either Joffrey Lupul or James Van Riemsdyk, and will also provide a presence on the powerplay in front of opposing goaltenders, a place Clarkson has called his home over the past two years in New Jersey.
The Leafs also shored up the middle by re-signing centre Tyler Bozak to a five-year extension with a cap hit of $4.2 million per season. Bozak hit free agency on Friday despite continued discussions with the Maple Leafs, and in the end took less term and money than what he was reportedly asking for prior to hitting the market.
Bozak is a good fit with the Leafs, and in particular Phil Kessel, who he's been paired with for most of his career since being signed out of the University of Denver as an undrafted free agent back in 2009.
Some of Leafs Nation had already moved on from the 27-year-old, who has been slotted into the #1 centre role for the past three years due to a lack of a better option on a team that has been consistently shallow at the position.
Bozak's production does not match up with other top centres around the league, but he fits alongside Kessel better than anyone else on the current Leafs roster and likely any of the free agents that were available.
The move come on the heels of using the teams final compliance buyout on centre Mikhail Grabovski on Thursday. The 29-year-old was one year into the five-year, $27.5 million deal he signed with the Leafs last summer, but struggled offensively this season and had issues falling into head coach Randy Carlyle's system.
With the acquisition of Dave Bolland from Chicago, and Nazem Kadri budding into a top-six centre, Grabovski became somewhat out of place — not able to slot in as the #1 centre (he's never really been able to create chemistry with Kessel on the few occasions the two have been paired together), and too small and gifted to play in a 3rd or 4th line checking role.
With a cap-hit of $5.5 million a year over the next four years, Grabovski became both untradeable and far too high-priced to play in such a limited role on the Leafs.
In the end, Nonis cut his losses on a contract that was signed by his predecessor Brian Burke, and re-signed Bozak to fill the first-line centre role, a job he is capable of carrying out until a better option becomes available — whether it be through free agency or trade.
With a cap hit of just $4.2 million, Bozak, unlike Grabovski, still offers good value for the money and will continue to be a bargaining chip for the Leafs over the next five years — assuming his production doesn't drop off completely.
In the end, it was an expensive day for a Leafs team that is focused on taking the next step from competitor to contender, but one that will see a more formidable 1-2 punch from the top two lines.
The Leafs still have to re-sign restricted free agents Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, and Kadri, which will bring the club close to the cap roof, but there is no doubt that in a few short months Nonis has put his stamp on a team that made the playoffs for the first time in nine years under his guidance.
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