David Clarkson
Credit: NHL.com
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The Toronto Maple Leafs must start over

The National Hockey League is built on the backs of six franchises, famously coined “The Original Six.” This group consists of the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. In recent times, the last of that bunch has become a total disgrace.

Toronto is the hockey mecca of the world, similar to New York and basketball. It’s the place where so many kids hope to play one day, especially those of Canadian heritage. Montreal might have the winning tradition, but nothing compares to Canada’s largest city.

The Maple Leafs have no excuse to be awful. They can attract almost any free agent, have unlimited resources and a rabid fan base. Yet, Toronto has made the playoffs only once since the 2004-2005 lockout. That sole appearance was in 2013, when the Maple Leafs blew a three-goal third period lead in Game 7 to the Bruins. It’s been that type of stretch for the good folks in Toronto.

This season won’t be any different. The Maple Leafs are terrible again, sitting seventh in the Atlantic Division with 51 points (23-30-5). The larger picture presents an even uglier problem; salary cap hell. The Maple Leafs have massive contracts assigned to bad players, with David Clarkson serving as the showcase to that issue.

Clarkson has proven one of the worst free-agent signings in NHL history after inking a seven-year, $36.75 million deal in 2013. The contract is basically buyout-proof due to the details, so Toronto is stuck with the languishing forward. This year, the 30-year-old winger has 15 points (10 goals, 5 assists) in 56 games with a -11 rating. Incredibly, it is an improvement over 2013-14 when Clarkson amassed 11 points and a -14 rating in 60 contests.

Clarkson’s contract is indefensible because it was not hard to see coming. Clarkson eclipsed 20 goals only once in seven years with the New Jersey Devils and never had 47 points. During his last season in New Jersey, Clarkson scored seven points over his last 34 games. Red flags were everywhere, and Toronto closed its eyes.

The best thing the Maple Leafs can do is trade any valuable assets for young talent and draft picks. Phil Kessel is signed to a large eight-year, $$64 million contract which runs through 2022, but perhaps a team would be willing to take on that deal for his All-Star talent. James van Riemsdyk is another tradeable contract, along with Tyler Bozak.

General manager Dave Nonis has already begun the process, dealing defenseman Cody Franson and center Mike Santorelli to the Nashville Predators for Olli Jokinen, Brendan Leipsic and most-importantly, a first-round pick. Before the trade deadline of March 2, many more should be jettisoned from Toronto.

The next few years are going to be ugly, but the Maple Leafs must accept a full rebuild. Trying to patchwork the roster has been a train wreck, consistently churning out unwatchable teams.

It’s not easy doing the right thing in sports when the result requires patience, but it is a necessary step for the Maple Leafs to become a stable franchise again.

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